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Senator faces primary challenge in bid for fifth term

Right wing has Specter in sights

Sunday, August 24, 2003

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Politics Editor

Opposition from the right is nothing new for Sen. Arlen Specter, but as he seeks a fifth term, he is facing an unusually prominent barrage of early opposition from national conservative voices.

The starkest display of the intraparty unrest appeared on national newsstands this week, as the conservative bible, National Review, appeared with a cover photo of Specter over the headline, "The Worst Republican Senator."

Specter faces a challenge for the Republican nomination next spring from Rep. Pat Toomey, a three-term congressman from the Allentown area, whose uphill bid carries the hopes of Specter's conservative opponents.

"The eyes of the nation are going to be on this race," said Stephen Moore, president of The Club for Growth. "This is going to be the most important primary in the nation."

The influential group Moore heads advocates a philosophy of free-market, low-tax absolutism. It sees Specter as insufficiently enthusiastic for the rounds of deep tax cuts promoted by the Bush administration, even though he voted for Bush's most recent tax proposal this year. In contrast, Moore said, Toomey is "a superstar," and Specter is "a liberal" who's "in the way."

Some other conservatives, as the National Review piece points out, criticize his generally moderate to liberal positions on social issues. Still others remain rankled by his opposition to the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork.

Other conservatives, however, are very much in Specter's corner, and their names would be significantly more familiar to most Pennsylvanians than those of Specter's ideological critics.

The White House has repeatedly made clear its support for the incumbent. Andrew Card, President Bush's chief of staff, appeared with Specter this year at a fund-raiser pointedly scheduled in Toomey's district. Vice President Dick Cheney traveled from his secure, undisclosed location to Harrisburg to raise still more money for Specter.

Sen. Rick Santorum, whose conservative credentials have never been questioned, has repeatedly stressed his support for Specter while attempting to discourage Toomey from the primary challenge.

Santorum and other Republicans have warned that a divisive primary could hurt the winner's chances in the November Senate race as well as potentially weaken party unity in a state that is important to Bush's re-election strategy.

Moore dismissed both concerns.

"If Specter wins, he will be the next senator; if Pat Toomey wins, he will be the next senator," he maintained.

The leading Democratic candidate for the seat is Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, D-Montgomery, whose congressional seat borders Toomey's. Hoeffel is being challenged by Charlie Crystle, a software millionaire from Lancaster.

A group of current and former colleagues figuratively rushed to Specter's side last week to rebut his portrayal in the National Review piece. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and his predecessor, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, joined former Republican leaders Bob Dole and Howard Baker in signing a letter vouching for Specter's credentials as "a team player, and one of the best senators in promoting Republican values and policies."

The letter notes that Lott has disputed the accuracy of a vignette in the National Review article in which Specter is said to have traded a vote for an appropriations bill for Lott's promise to appear at two of his fund-raisers.

Specter's office, apparently not eager to direct any more attention to the bruising from the magazine, confined its response to releasing a brief transcript of Specter's response to one reporter's question on the story.

"People of Pennsylvania do not agree with the National Review, and obviously, I am a lot more concerned with what Pennsylvanians think than what the National Review may do to sell its publications," Specter said in the statement. "I read the story, and they played fast and loose with the facts, a lot of inaccuracies in that story."

National Review is hardly a mass circulation publication, but it has a disproportionate influence among the conservative movement. It's imprimatur seems bound to boost Toomey's war chest.

"We've received a lot of positive comments about the article," said Joe Sterns, Toomey's press secretary. "People have said it will help contributions, but we'll have to wait and see."

After the latest June 30 reporting period, Toomey had raised approximately $1.5 million, a sum dwarfed by Specter's $8.6 million.

"The biggest factor is money," said former state Rep. Steve Freind, who mounted a previous conservative challenge against Specter in 1992. "Toomey seems to be making a respectable start, and as a conservative, he's going to have a hell of a lot of grass roots out there. ... I've always said Specter is vulnerable in a Republican primary from the right."

That's a feat Freind didn't come close to achieving, as he trailed Specter 65 percent to 35 percent among Republican voters.

But, he said, "From a fund-raising standpoint, national conservatives are going to take a sitting congressman a lot more seriously than a state representative. We raised only $420,000 in '92; we always said that if we could have raised even $1.2 million, we would have had a real chance."

Freind said, though, that Specter has advantages that go beyond money.

"He's an enormously hard worker. He's been to every village and town in this state," Freind said. "Nobody's going to outwork him."

Specter was demonstrating his zeal for retail campaigning this week in a swing through the small towns and sprawling suburbs of south-central Pennsylvania. Toomey was trying to get his name across the state in a bus tour that was brought him to the steps of the Allegheny County Courthouse yesterday morning.

Moore said the Club for Growth was committed to raising at least $500,000 for Toomey, "And we'd like to get a higher number."

"As long as Pat Toomey can raise the $5 million or so it's going to take to run a serious campaign, he's got a chance," he said. "He's not going to match Specter, but at some point [in campaign spending] there's a law of diminishing returns."

Moore's group showed its willingness to employ sharp elbows against Republican incumbents this year when it sponsored television ads in Maine and Ohio showing Sens. Olympia Snowe and George Voinovich in front of a French flag, at a time when France was acting as a roadblock to America's strategy against Iraq. The club's ire against the two senators was based not on foreign policy but on their initial refusal to back Bush's latest tax cut proposal.

Moore also has been a reliable source of incendiary quotes critical of Specter. In The New York Times Magazine last month, he was quoted savoring the prospect of a Specter defeat as "a major scalp on the wall," for his group.

In an interview this week, he took a more measured tone, portraying his organization's involvement in the Pennsylvania race as more of a pro-Toomey than anti-Specter statement.

"I really regret a lot of those quotes," he said. "I know that Specter was upset by it. ... I didn't mean it to be disrespectful.

" 'Scalp on the wall,' that's just something we say around the office ... [meaning that] we've got to beat an incumbent, because it's very hard to do."

James O'Toole can be reached at or 412-263-1562.

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