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Toomey's Test

Pat Toomey is gunning for Arlen Specter's Senate seat. The incumbent may have good reason to be nervous.

12:00 AM, Sep 26, 2003 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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IN WHAT IS SHAPING UP to be the only serious GOP primary challenge next fall, conventional wisdom has Republican Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter beating Republican representative Pat Toomey.

Specter is starting out with all the advantages. As the incumbent, he already has the support of the Republican establishment: the White House, Pennsylvania's junior Senator Rick Santorum, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and at least four Pennsylvania GOP House members have lined up behind him. He already has a sizable campaign war chest (in the June filing report Specter had about $8.6 million to Toomey's $1.5 million). Moreover, he has high statewide name recognition and a 60 percent approval rating. In a general election he would likely trounce whoever the Democrat is.

But in Pennsylvania's closed primary, Specter could be vulnerable, especially if Toomey, a social and fiscal conservative, can get his message out to conservatives irritated with Specter's left-leaning record. (In 2002 the American Conservative Union gave Specter a 50 percent rating. Toomey received 100 percent.)

"[Toomey] has a real opportunity," says Tom Adkins, who runs the Pennsylvania-based CommonConservative.com. "Arlen Specter's support is statewide, but it's only an inch deep. It can be penetrated."

And Specter has shown surprising weakness in his last two primaries. In 1992, Steve Friend, an obscure, underfunded state representative got 35 percent of the vote. In a three-way primary race in 1998, Specter's two unknown challengers combined for 33 percent of the vote.

A poll conducted by the Toomey campaign shows that Specter may have reason to worry. Among likely Republican primary voters, the poll found that 55 percent had heard of both Specter and Toomey. Among that group, Toomey received 35 percent of the vote and Specter received 34 percent, with 31 percent undecided.

So it's not that surprising that Specter doesn't appear to be completely sure of himself. Although he is pro-choice (but supports a ban on partial-birth abortion) and is a leading sponsor of legislation that would authorize research cloning, he recently tried to meet with the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation to ask for its endorsement.

He's also reaching out to the conservative Club for Growth, the anti-tax organization with a history of financially backing primary challengers to liberal Republicans. "He's calling all kinds of Club for Growth board members, a group not impressed with his record, and asking them not to support Toomey," says David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth.

And last week he launched television attack ads: "Republicans across Pennsylvania are learning a simple truth," the ad says. "You can't trust Congressman Pat Toomey. Pat Toomey says he is effective, but only passed two bills in Congress. One increased paperwork. The other renamed a building."

Part of the reason Specter has gone negative more than a year before the primary is that Toomey has also started TV advertising. Specter doesn't want him to get a foothold with voters. (Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Republican state committee convinced both candidates to pull their ads until November--to avoid taking the focus off of judicial elections.) "Specter realized that Toomey's name recognition is going up and he's trying to take him out," says Terry Madonna, professor and chair of the government department at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Which leads to the other part of the explanation: He sees Toomey as a real threat.

"Negative advertising this early shows Specter is taking this race very seriously," Keating says. "He's getting nervous."

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

Correction appended, 10/1/03: The article originally stated that Arlen Specter had met with the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. Although he tried to meet with the group, the two parties have not yet done so.