The Magazine

A Challenger Haunts Specter

From the April 26, 2004 issue: Why is the Bush administration opposing a conservative in Pennsylvania?

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Lewisburg, Pa.

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that if President Bush could handpick the next senator from Pennsylvania, he would choose Pat Toomey. A young, smart, and likable conservative, Toomey currently serves in the House of Representatives from Lehigh Valley. He lines up with the Bush administration on nearly all of its policies, foreign and domestic, and articulates them in a no-nonsense, common-sense manner. He would be a tremendous asset in the Senate in a second Bush term.

Not only is the White House political machine not supporting Toomey, however, but Karl Rove and the entire Republican establishment are working against him. That includes Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania's other senator and a solid conservative. Toomey is challenging Senator Arlen Specter, also a Republican, whose chief (some might say only) virtue is that he is the incumbent. And in Washington, D.C., that makes all the difference.

The White House initially took a hands-off approach to the primary challenge. Says Toomey, "Nobody from the White House or from Senator Santorum's office has ever approached me directly or indirectly or through intermediaries and suggested that I not do this," though he allows that they didn't encourage him to do it either. Rove and company have not generally been reluctant to intervene on behalf of their preferred candidates, so their inaction in Pennsylvania was something of a surprise.

But they are making up for their slow start. President Bush has already made one campaign appearance for Specter, and he has scheduled a second, potentially decisive visit for April 19, eight days before the April 27 primary.

Specter's lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 43 out of 100, well below even some of his Democratic colleagues'. In a race that is largely a battle for the support of Pennsylvania conservatives, the endorsements from Santorum and Bush are huge. So Specter touts them everywhere and often, including in ads he's running on conservative radio--both Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity--and on television.

It seems to be working. Toomey took questions after a speech earlier this month to Union County Republicans. The first questioner said he was concerned about supporting someone who doesn't have the backing of Santorum and the White House. Several voters raised the issue in interviews, and later that day a student from Bucknell University told Toomey: "I'm disgruntled when I hear my two favorite politicians--you're third until you're elected--supporting a guy like Specter." Each time, Toomey patiently explained that political politesse "constrains" both the White House and Santorum from backing him and ended with a crowd pleaser: "Remember, Howard Dean had a lot of endorsements, and all he got was Vermont."

But a recent Quinnipiac poll shows Specter with a 15-point lead. More troubling for Toomey, the two candidates are splitting the votes of self-identified conservatives roughly in half. If that happens on Election Day, Specter wins.

Toomey, however, says that his campaign's internal polling gives him a wide advantage among conservatives and shows that the contest is essentially a "toss up." His campaign calls it a surge. Specter supporters say the race was bound to tighten.

They're probably both right, so the race is getting nasty. Specter ads portray Toomey as a liar, a heartless politician, and, in at least one instance, an enabler of illegal behavior. I heard that last ad in early April on a mid-afternoon broadcast of the Rush Limbaugh show. Specter accuses Toomey, once part-owner of a bar, of owning an establishment where "drunks were served and drugs were sold."

I asked Toomey about that ad a little more than a week ago. He had just finished telling a gathering of Republicans that despite their many political differences he feels no "personal animosity" toward Specter. Toomey said he hadn't known about the ad.

"Well," he said, taking a long pause, "well, I'm trying to not to, ah, to allow personal animosity to become part of this--[another pause]--but it's getting hard. It's getting hard not to get frustrated with the dishonesty and the personal attacks."

Toomey summed up his candidacy that day in a soundbite: I am from the Republican wing of the Republican party, and Arlen Specter is from the Ted Kennedy wing. With conservatives in control of the White House and Congress, there is an opportunity to reduce the role of government in a meaningful way, something Arlen Specter has shown no interest in doing over his long career.