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Party Politics Heat Up Democratic Primary in Pa.

May 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff reports from Pennsylvania about the Democratic primary, where former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter is in a fight for survival as a long-shot candidate gains ground on the incumbent senator.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: an election 2010 story. It comes from Pennsylvania, where, next Tuesday, Democrats will choose a nominee to run for the U.S. Senate seat in November.

Judy Woodruff has our report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the City of Brotherly Love, it’s the time of year when loyal Phillies fans head to the park, ready to cheer on or have their hearts broken by their favorite players. But a suddenly competitive political contest in this state has stirred up strong views about more than baseball this spring.

JANET WEINER, Pennsylvania: Specter, I think, is a liberal Republican, but very far away from anything that I believe in, and I haven’t liked him since the Anita Hill hearings.

DAN FITZGERALD, Pennsylvania: He’s done a lot for Pennsylvania. He can do still a lot more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Those very different opinions are about one man, Arlen Specter. For going on 30 years, he has represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate, all but one of them as a Republican.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, D-Pa.: We have our game plan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now he’s in an unexpected race for his political life in a Democratic primary.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Nice to see you guys.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unlike most in the GOP, Specter, as a Republican, cultivated labor unions and other constituencies typically associated with the Democratic camp.

DAVID REICHARD, president, IBEW Local Union 375: We have been with him a long, long time. He’s never let us down. He’s been true to his word, honest man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Republican leaders weren’t entirely surprised when, one year ago, staring at a primary challenge on his right, the five-term senator announced he was switching parties.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I am pleased to run in the primary on the Democratic ticket and am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers in a general election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Democrats in Washington, from the president on down, were thrilled, as this gave them what was then the crucial 60th vote in the Senate to overcome GOP filibusters.

But, back home in Pennsylvania, the news hasn’t gone down well with many rank-and-file Democrats. About 40 percent of the vote in next Tuesday’s primary is expected to come from here in Philadelphia and its densely populated suburbs, where Arlen Specter has long attracted Democrats, even when he was a Republican.

But now that he’s switched parties, he’s become a target of some Democrats who say he’s an opportunist and can’t be counted on to support Democratic priorities.

MAN: I would like to shake the hand of the real Democrat in the race.

WOMAN: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Leading the charge is Specter’s primary opponent, Congressman Joe Sestak.

REP. JOE SESTAK, D-Pa.: I’m in the Democratic Party out of core beliefs, conviction, not, as Arlen Specter said, because he did it for political calculations.

We cannot fix Washington, which everyone has lost faith in, if you are just going to rely on the same career politicians that got us into this mess. We need a new generation to literally help clean up how we approach the future.

This is Joe Sestak, the congressman running against Arlen Specter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sestak, a 31-year Navy veteran, starting only his second term in Congress, traveled to all 67 Pennsylvania counties before announcing last August he would challenge Specter in the primary.

REP. JOE SESTAK: I respect my Democratic establishment, but I don’t understand how someone who has advanced the Republican agenda that set this nation aground can ever be told: Come on over. Show us how it’s to be done.

In the U.S. Navy, if a Navy captain runs a ship aground, they relieve him for cause. They don’t say: It’s all right. I have got a deal for you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The move defied Democratic Party leaders and even the White House, which Sestak said had offered him a job in the Obama administration if he would stand down.

Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, says Sestak, a former admiral, is an indefatigable campaigner, perhaps only rivaled by the man he’s trying to defeat.

TERRY MADONNA, director, Center for Politics and Public Affairs, Franklin and Marshall College: I don’t think I have ever met a politician more driven, personally driven, and to the point where he will — he will go anywhere, stay any amount of time, do whatever he has to do in order to win. And he doesn’t care if he’s speaking to five people, 500 or 5,000.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And many Democrats, like Monica Kline and Gregory Stewart, who campaigned early and tirelessly for President Obama’s campaign in the Keystone State, were ready for Sestak’s message: that Specter’s not someone they can count on.

MONICA KLINE, Sestak supporter: I was born in 1965. Arlen Specter has been a Republican my entire life. I remember coming home and watching the Clarence Thomas hearings on C-SPAN. And may — perhaps it’s my Sicilian in me, but I don’t forget things. And I just remember being so disheartened and shocked at the treatment of Anita Hill.

And, from that moment, frankly, I would hope for a candidate to run against Arlen who I could support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stewart said Obama’s endorsement of Specter didn’t deter him.

GREGORY STEWART, Sestak supporter: Because I still support a lot of what — what he’s doing, but in this particular case, I think the voters of Pennsylvania are going to have to make a decision. And it’s not going to come from the top down. And the fact that that grassroots movement started in 2008 is really making it easier for someone like a Joe Sestak to challenge the establishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, hardly any at first gave the 58-year-old Sestak a chance against the far more senior, better-known Specter, who insists that, even as a Republican, he voted for Democratic values.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, Sestak may challenge my credentials as a supporter of Democratic values, but President Obama is a better authority — support a woman’s right to choose, opposed warrantless wiretapping, for the minimum wage, for unemployment compensation.

But the big votes, the big votes, Judy, the stimulus package, I cast the critical vote which saved, as President Obama says, the country from going over the brink, a 1930s-style depression. And I was the 60th vote on comprehensive health care reform.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Specter also finds himself up against a shifting national political landscape. Voters have grown more and more fed up with Washington gridlock and politicians they view as not addressing the nation’s most urgent problems.

Even Specter’s biggest cheerleaders, like Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, acknowledge, the voters’ mood has to be taken seriously.

GOV. ED RENDELL, D-Pa.: I think there is a strong anti-incumbent feeling in the country. And I would have a very difficult time if I was running for reelection. You know, there isn’t an incumbent governor, senator or even congressman who’s in good shape in this country.

TERRY MADONNA: Voters are sour. They are cranky. They’re frustrated. And that energy level that we saw with President Obama in this state — he won Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points, turned out a whole bunch of new voters — we don’t see that. And they have a week to go, or less than a week to go. And I don’t — I don’t think we are going to have a big turnout.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Specter himself tells crowds he knows he’s operating in a tough political climate.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: If you don’t cotton up to the Tea Party gang, you’re no good. And see where John McCain is today. Can you believe it, that John McCain doesn’t appear to be conservative enough to be the Republican nominee for reelection in Arizona?

So, who can stay in a party — it’s not far-right. Its far-out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many political observers say Specter made a mistake by waiting and letting Sestak go up with the first round of television spots, mocking Specter’s party switch.

GEORGE W. BUSH, former president of the United States: I can count on this man. See, that’s important. He’s a firm ally.

NARRATOR: But now:

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: My change in party will enable me to be reelected.

NARRATOR: Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job — his, not yours.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These and a few other Sestak spots have helped propel him from 20 points behind in most polls last month to even with or slightly ahead of Specter today.

Specter has come back with his own tough TV spots.

NARRATOR: Joe Sestak, relieved of duty in the Navy for creating a poor command climate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But one of them has backfired. This one has prompted many Democrats to accuse Specter of below-the-belt tactics, and some undecideds to come out for Sestak.

The congressman rejects Specter’s call to release his military records, and says the TV ad is not true.

REP. JOE SESTAK: Arlen Specter, what a shame. It says more about him than it says about anybody else, that he will actually pursue a lie. He will actually say what’s false. He will actually do anything in smearing someone to try to keep his job.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I have been in public life for 43 years, and no one has ever called me a liar before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some Democrats are telling pollsters they see still another Specter liability: his age, and the fact that he has had two bouts with cancer.

TERRY MADONNA: To be candid with you, in the interviews that we have done, age and health come up. I mean, the fact that he is 80 years old is — is an issue for some voters. And, you know, why doesn’t he go do something else? Why can’t he find another, you know, way to spend, you know, his — his latter years?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Specter, not surprisingly, dismisses that.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, I’m fit as a fiddle, play squash almost every day. I have got my strength and full of vim, vigor and vitality, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor Rendell adds that Specter has built up influence the state of Pennsylvania and its voters rely on.

GOV. ED RENDELL: Arlen Specter, over 30 years, has amassed an incredible amount of clout. He — he knows where all of the — what’s in — stuck in every drawer. He knows where the skeletons are buried. He has an incredible way of getting stuff for the state. He’s such a bulldog, but he’s a bulldog for us. And that would be the big difference. On votes, on ideology, I think there would be practically no difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But professor Terry Madonna says, in the current political climate, that clout can work against Specter.

TERRY MADONNA: The voters are still in a change mood. And, so, a lot of what normally be a tremendous asset — longevity, experience, delivering for the state — all of that now becomes a negative. All of that becomes a detriment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With just a few days to go before the vote, President Obama has cut a new TV spot for Specter.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know he’s going to fight for you, regardless of what the politics are.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: I’m Arlen Specter. I approve this message.

BARACK OBAMA: I love you, and I love Arlen Specter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the White House says the president won’t be returning to Pennsylvania before the primary. And, in this down-to-the-wire contest, the Sestak camp is counting on the large pool of still undecided voters to break their way.

The one thing all Democrats agree on: Whoever wins will face a formidable Republican contender in November.