Arlen Specter waves after being acknowledged by President Obama at a healthcare… (Chris Gardner / European…)
Reporting from Allentown, Pa. — As Sen. Arlen Specter stood alongside steelworkers whose pensions he helped save, he urged Democratic voters to remember his record in Congress, even his decades as a Republican.
He always put principles before party, Specter said, citing his vote for President Obama's economic stimulus plan. He reminded them that was the vote that pushed him out of the Republican Party and into the Democratic fold, whose primary voters will decide the five-term senator's fate Tuesday.
"The little guys need representation in Washington," he told supporters at a union hall here. "You need somebody who will … figure out what's in the public's interest and vote that way, politics be damned."
But many Democrats remain skeptical, which is why the 80-year-old Specter is fighting for his political life in a tight, nasty primary battle with Rep. Joe Sestak. Incumbents in both parties are facing difficult reelection battles across the nation, but Specter has the added challenge of facing voters who are suspicious that he changed political parties as a matter of convenience rather than core beliefs. A Morning Call/Muhlenberg College tracking poll released Wednesday showed Sestak and Specter tied, with each receiving the support of 45% of likely Democratic voters. The winner is expected to take on former Rep. Pat Toomey, the presumed Republican nominee, in the fall.
Sestak says Specter can't be trusted.
"You cannot ask someone who's a career politician, with 30 years advancing the Republican agenda that got us into this mess, to fix it," he said.
Until April 2009, Specter was a Republican. After crossing the aisle to support the $787-billion stimulus, Specter concluded that he would not win a primary against Toomey and that there was little room for moderates in the GOP, so he switched parties.
He said recent events — Florida Gov. Charlie Crist becoming an independent after it became clear he would not win a Republican Senate primary, and Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett being denied the party's nomination for a third term — show that the GOP's big tent has shrunk.
"I didn't leave the party. Crist didn't leave the party," Specter said. "The party left us."
Running as a Democrat, Specter has the support of the party, labor, Gov. Edward G. Rendell and the White House. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have campaigned and raised money for Specter, and in an ad unveiled Tuesday, Obama proclaims, "I love Arlen Specter."
The support is payback for Specter's vote on the stimulus, and his party-line voting since joining the Democrats. It reflects Specter's history of moderation on issues such as abortion and immigration. And it's personal: When Biden was Delaware's senator, he and Specter rode Amtrak to Washington together. Specter gave Rendell his first job decades ago; the men are friends and neighbors.
But the establishment support has not resonated with the rank and file.
"He's a moderate Republican, but he's a Republican and I'm a liberal Democrat," said Mary Ellen Feustel, 63, of Swarthmore. "There's a difference."
Sestak has seized upon this doubt, airing an ad that shows Specter being lauded by President George W. Bush. And Sestak is pointing out the times Specter sided with Republicans, notably his vote opposing Elena Kagan's posting as solicitor general. Obama nominated Kagan this week to the Supreme Court.
Specter has responded by accusing Sestak, who retired from the Navy as a two-star admiral, of being a tyrannical leader in the service.
In early 2009, Sestak was being groomed to run against then-Republican Specter. After Specter switched parties, Sestak refused Democratic entreaties to drop out and accused the White House of offering him a high-ranking job to clear the field for Specter.
Much will depend on voter turnout Tuesday. Specter has the get-out-the-vote infrastructure of the state party and the Rendell and Obama campaigns. But the momentum is with Sestak.
"Arlen Specter is a man trapped in the middle," said G. Terry Madonna, a public affairs professor at Franklin & Marshall College, "and the middle is an inconvenient place to be in this highly polarized environment."