Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When five-term Senator Arlen Specter left the GOP last year, President Obama and national Democrats heralded the move. But in his home state of Pennsylvania, the reaction from Democrats was more complicated. Many welcomed Specter, but others called him an opportunist.

Among the unimpressed was Congressman Joe Sestak, who's hoping to defeat Specter in the Democratic primary next Tuesday.

NPR's Don Gonyea has the story.

In Pennsylvania, 80-year-old Arlen Specter is as well-known as a politician can be. He switched parties, saying the GOP had moved too far to the right, that he no longer fit in. He was welcomed by the political establishment, including President Obama, Governor Rendell and the big labor unions.

Congressman Joe Sestak, meanwhile, started out with very low name recognition. And when he announced last summer that he was running against Specter, he was seen as a long shot at best. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that he went on statewide TV with ads, essentially introducing himself to voters.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man: Meet Joe Sestak. He's the Democrat running against Arlen Specter. Sestak has been called Pennsylvania's most effective new congressman but he's not a career politician. Sestak served in the Navy for 31 years and became a three-star admiral. He commanded an aircraft carrier battle group in Afghanistan...

GONYEA: That spot came relatively late in the race. The Sestak campaign simply didn't have the money to run a big TV ad blitz any earlier. When polls began to show the challenger starting to cut into what had been a 20-point lead for Arlen Specter, the incumbent responded with this:

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Joe Sestak, relieved of duty in the Navy for creating poor command climate. Joe Sestak, the worst attendance of any Pennsylvania congressman and near the bottom of the entire Congress.

GONYEA: Sestak called the claim about his military record a lie. Then Specter then demanded that Sestak apologize to him for calling him a liar. And so it has gone back and forth ever since. But it's the kind of high-profile dust-up a challenger dreams of and something happened, a shift in momentum. Suddenly, this week, new polls put Sestak in the lead, albeit by a very small margin. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College...

Mr. TERRY MADONNA (Professor of Public Affairs, Franklin & Marshall College): What I think has surprised everyone is the rapidity with which he has made up the ground and secondly, the sheer numbers of undecided voters who have come into his column.

GONYEA: After 30 years in the Senate, this is the first race that Specter has run as a Democrat. Among his admirers is 76-year-old Jeanne Friday, who was at a union hall in Washington, Pennsylvania, last week.

Ms. JEANNE FRIDAY: I'm a Specter supporter. Through the years, I've seen Arlen Specter come on our side and vote for issues that were very important to us, and so I definitely still support him.

GONYEA: As for supporters of Joe Sestak, they are often motivated as much by their dislike of Specter. They point to, among other things, Specter's votes for President Bush's tax cuts and for the Iraq War. Sixty-year-old Robert Gray is from the Johnstown area. He calls Specter a turncoat.

Mr. ROBERT GRAY: I don't trust Mr. Specter. I will not vote for Specter.

GONYEA: In an interesting twist, both campaigns have begun running ads in the past week featuring a president of the United States praising Senator Specter. The TV spot being run by Sestak includes this familiar voice, recorded in 2004.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Former President GEORGE W. BUSH: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate. I can count on this man. See, that's important.

GONYEA: Meanwhile, Specter's ad features this soundbite from last year:

(Soundbite of advertisement)

President BARACK OBAMA: And Arlen Specter cast the deciding vote in favor of the Recovery Act that has helped pull us back from the brink.

GONYEA: The result of next Tuesday's primary will depend on which Specter voters see.

And now there's a new issue: Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Just last year, when he was still a Republican, Senator Specter opposed Kagan's nomination to her current job, solicitor general. That's something Sestak is more than happy to remind voters of. So, it's complicated. Again, political analyst, Terry Madonna.

Mr. MADONNA: If Arlen Specter had had one wish, it's that the president of the United States had given him a call and said, I'm going to nominate Elena Kagan, what do you think? And Specter's answer would have been: Can we wait until May 19th?

GONYEA: In other words, one day after the Pennsylvania primary.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: