WASHINGTON — President Obama wades into an intramural fight among Democrats today by attending a high-dollar fundraising dinner for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), demonstrating an unusual measure of personal commitment in a primary battle whose outcome is far from clear.
As leader of his party, Obama had the option of following a more neutral course and staying out of the primary race between Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.). But the White House has opted to double down on its support for Specter, a longtime Republican who switched parties in the spring partly to avoid an anticipated defeat in the GOP primary next year.
Proceeds of the reception and dinner in Philadelphia will go to both Specter and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to a Specter campaign aide. The fundraising goal for both events is $2.5 million.
Guests attending the private dinner with Obama must donate $10,000 or raise $50,000. A ticket will also get them a picture with the president. The ticket price for the reception is about $2,400. Organizers expect about 750 people to attend the reception and 250 at the dinner. The Senate is scheduling no votes after 3 p.m. today so Specter can attend the fundraiser, a leadership aide said.
Next month, Vice President Joe Biden will headline a Specter fundraiser in Pittsburgh.
Although a president may not want to take sides in such contests, the Specter case is different, said Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Specter supporter.
"The president feels an obligation because he and the vice president worked hard to get Sen. Specter to switch parties, and that's not your normal situation," Rendell said. "I think they feel obligated."
The move carries risks for Obama. Should Sestak prevail as an insurgent candidate lacking establishment backing, it would be an embarrassment for a president who ran much the same kind of campaign in 2008.
Specter raised an impressive $1.7 million during the three-month period that ended June 30, putting him well ahead of Sestak. Having served five terms in the Senate, he is by far the better known of the two.
A poll by Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., last month showed Specter leading Sestak among Democratic voters, 37% to 11%, with half of Democrats undecided. But the poll showed that Specter is not invincible.
The poll asked Pennsylvania voters of all political affiliations whether Specter ought to be reelected or if it was time for new blood. A total of 34% said he deserved reelection, with 54% saying it was "time for a change," according to poll director G. Terry Madonna.
An Obama endorsement may not carry as much weight in Pennsylvania as it once did. The Franklin & Marshall poll found that 47% rated Obama's performance "excellent" or "good," compared with 53% who chose "fair" or "poor." In June, his "excellent/good" rating was 8 points higher.
Obama administration officials said that endorsing Specter was an easy call. "Our position from the start is that we're going to support [Democratic] incumbents seeking reelection," said a senior Obama administration official.
Specter has sought to show that he is a loyal Obama Democrat, making it easier for the White House to give him its full support. He championed Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and backs an Obama-supported proposal to establish a government-run health insurance program to compete with private insurers. That idea has made some conservative Democrats uneasy, but Specter last week declared himself an "emphatic" supporter.
When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) apologized to Obama for yelling "You lie!" at the president during the joint session of Congress last week, Specter said it wasn't enough.
"Maybe it's no coincidence that for many years I have been derided by the far right as a Republican in name only," Specter told party activists at a June Democratic Committee event in Pittsburgh.
"Well, I'm no longer a Republican. I'm again a Democrat," said Specter, who was a Democrat early in his political career. "And I'm pleased and proud to be a Democrat."