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In year of anti-incumbency, Pennsylvania's Specter fights to survive

PHILADELPHIA — Arlen Specter is the epitome of what he calls the "endangered species."

But campaigning across the city Friday, he kept reminding people how much of an incumbent he is, a 30-year veteran of Washington.

"That's a big item, the experience and seniority I have in the U.S. Senate," Specter, 80, said after telling a crowd how he successfully fought cuts to a school lunch program that would have left 120,000 kids in Philadelphia hungry.

If 2010 is the year of anti-incumbency, Pennsylvania's senior senator is taking a curious path. He has no other choice. A year after fleeing the GOP to become a Democrat, Specter finds himself in an unexpectedly tough primary fight that could end his career on Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a compact and energetic former Navy admiral from the Philadelphia suburbs, has erased a 20-point deficit by casting Specter as a creature of Washington who switched parties only for self-preservation. The point is hammered home in a new TV ad that concludes, "Arlen Specter changed parties to save one job … his, not yours."

If voters renounce Specter as an opportunist, it could serve as a warning to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the GOP himself last month and is now running for the U.S. Senate with no party affiliation.

"More than a year ago, I was asked to call Gov. Crist and ask him to run as a moderate," Specter said in an interview after getting an endorsement from black clergy. "He files and the right wing comes in and cuts him off at the knees. He had to leave the party just like I did."

Crist's transformation came only after it was clear he was facing defeat in the Republican primary against Marco Rubio. He essentially makes the same point that the GOP had moved away from his more moderate views. But Crist denies Specter's plight holds any implications for himself.

"No disparagement to Pennsylvania, but it ain't Florida," said Crist, who was born in the Keystone state.

• • •

Still, Pennsylvania, like Florida, was a battleground in the 2008 presidential election. This year, it could serve as a bellwether of the midterm elections, a time that typically favors the party that does not hold the White House.

A Republican has a strong chance of winning a special election Tuesday to fill the seat of longtime Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who died in February.

Even if Specter survives to take on Republican Pat Toomey, whom he has defeated before, he still faces the incumbency problem. He is seeking his sixth term.

"If he goes down, it should put the fear of God into incumbents everywhere," said G. Terry Madonna, an expert on state politics at Franklin & Marshall College.

• • •

Specter's troubles are rooted in his support for President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. He cast the deciding vote and instantly became a pariah among Republicans.

The same ire has helped dismantle Crist, who famously hugged Obama at a February 2009 rally for the stimulus plan in Fort Myers.

Now in the fight of his life, Specter never misses a chance to remind Democrats of his vote, saying it saved thousands of jobs for teachers and police officers.

"The claim of opportunism is outlandish in the context that I had a clear path to re-election had I not voted for the stimulus package," Specter said.

A Specter TV ad features Obama praising him for the vote. But Obama decided not to come to Pennsylvania to campaign for Specter in the last dash of the race, unwilling to risk his political capital like he did earlier this year in Massachusetts only to see Republican Scott Brown win the Senate race.

• • •

Like Crist, Specter emphasizes people over partisanship. Asked how he could assure Democrats of his reliability, Specter said when Obama welcomed him to the party, he did not ask for a rubber stamp.

"I think I'm a pretty reliable guy when I vote for the people," Specter said.

To affirm that point, he is touting the money and projects he has brought home. The message: Pennsylvania can't afford to lose Arlen Specter. Some Democrats reluctantly agree.

"Mr. Sestak may be a good man but right now he's not going to have that kind of juice and power," said Vincent Johnson, 45, a city employee who was eating homemade potato soup in a park Friday afternoon when Sestak came by. "I have to stay on the side of an old warhorse."

Lawyer Steve Brock, 50, was similarly skeptical. "I personally like Sestak better," he said, "but will he be as effective at bringing things to Philadelphia? Don't know."

It's a troubling sign that so late in the race, Specter is still struggling to prove himself a Democrat and needs to drop words like "vigor" to counter criticism of his age. He has made a few ill-timed gaffes, referring to Democratic groups as "Republicans."

His opponent has repeatedly reminded voters that Specter has a long record as a Republican, voting with the party nearly 80 percent of the time under President George W. Bush.

Most devastating is the TV ad that uses Specter's own words against him.

"My change in party will enable me to be re-elected," Specter is shown saying in the ad, run across the state in recent days and what seemed like every commercial break during Friday night's widely watched Flyers-Bruins playoff hockey game.

"He was out for No. 1," said Don Senior, a 35-year-old writer and Democrat from Philadelphia.

"His time has come and gone," 58-year-old Sestak, first elected in 2006, said in an interview. "This race is a referendum on how broken Washington is and Arlen Specter is the poster child for that."

Times staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter@learyspt.

The Midterms

A series of occasional stories exploring the policy, the politics and the people driving the 2010 elections.

In year of anti-incumbency, Pennsylvania's Specter fights to survive 05/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 16, 2010 9:58pm]
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