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Sen. Arlen Specter floats possibility of independent run

'It is an abstract possibility,' says the five-term Republican from Pennsylvania, who faces possible primary challenges in 2010 and criticism from his state's GOP.

March 19, 2009|Josh Drobnyk

WASHINGTON — Sen. Arlen Specter says he is a Republican and plans to remain so as a candidate for reelection in 2010.

But with the five-term Pennsylvanian under fire from some within his state's GOP and facing the prospect of a tough primary battle next year, he's not ruling out the chance that he'll run as an independent.

"It is an abstract possibility, but I am not making any plans on it," he said in a brief interview Wednesday.

He added: "It is a possibility in the sense that almost anything is a possibility."

The slim opening -- from a senator who chooses his words carefully -- adds a layer of intrigue to what is shaping up as the most closely watched Senate race in the country next year, with former Rep. Patrick J. Toomey considering a repeat bid for the Republican nomination and a handful of Democrats eyeing potential runs.

Specter first raised the prospect of an independent run in an interview with the Hill published Wednesday, telling the Capitol Hill newspaper that he would make the jump only as a last resort and on the condition that he could caucus as a Republican.

But what Specter can't do is follow in the footsteps of Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut senator who lost his race for the Democratic nomination in 2006 only to win as an independent candidate in the general election. Pennsylvania state law prevents candidates who lose party primaries from running as independents in the general election.

The idea of skipping the GOP primary for an independent run comes with Specter looming as a decisive voice on Capitol Hill, having bucked his party to back the economic stimulus package last month. He is also considering backing a labor rights bill that the party opposes.

It would bring significant challenges in a state that doesn't have a single unaffiliated lawmaker in its General Assembly.

"We still have fairly strong levels of partisanship in our electorate," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "You've got to convince voters that they should move away from their party."

So why raise the possibility?

"Arlen is nothing if not provocative," Madonna said. "What he is doing is holding all options open until he gets a better sense of what Republican primary voters are likely to do."

Awaiting an independent Specter in the Senate would be two independents who caucus with Democrats: Lieberman and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

"We would welcome him to the small number of members to the independent caucus," Lieberman said Wednesday.

It is unclear whether the GOP leadership would embrace the move. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky didn't respond when asked off the Senate floor whether he would support Specter if he planned to caucus with Republicans as an independent.

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jdrobnyk@mcall.com

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