With Specter Suffering, White House And GOP Looking At Surging Sestak

May 17, 2010 9:18 am

When a brutal television ad hit the airwaves starring Sen. Arlen Specter and his then-ally President George W. Bush, the incumbent Republican-turned-Democrat did little to defend against it. How could he, when it used footage of his own words from his days as a Republican?

With voter opinions of the longtime politician already formed, the ad helped drive home a reminder for Democrats — they’d been voting against Specter for decades. That allowed Rep. Joe Sestak in the weeks since putting the Bush ad on the air to surge to the lead before tomorrow’s still too-close-to-call Democratic primary race.

Republicans and Democrats say they started to think Specter was toast in early May, when Sestak went up on television with what they described as a “just brutal” campaign ad starring Bush. Specter countered with an ad starring President Obama, who won the state in 2008, but did not mount an aggressive defense against his own party-switching.“He’s a lightning rod for anti-incumbency feeling that’s out there,” Gov. Ed Rendell said this afternoon on ABC’s TopLine. Rendell (D) is backing Specter and has helped to bring along the party’s establishment and state officials while attempting to get Sestak to back off his challenge. Rendell will be crucial in getting out the Philadelphia vote for Specter tomorrow, and also said today he’s not so sure the rainy weather will help.

Specter’s incumbency resonates with voters because last spring he cut a deal with the White House and switched parties to avoid what was looking to be a Republican primary loss against Pat Toomey. Conservative voters were angry that he voted for the $787 billion economic stimulus, not to mention other votes against the GOP that they considered too moderate over the years. It also doesn’t help that Specter has held office for decades or that he’s 80 years old.

But most of all “it was that damn ad,” one Democrat told me.

A White House aide disputed a report over the weekend that Obama has written off Specter as having no chance at winning. “It’s close, no one can make a rock solid prediction and we’re going to let the people of Pennsylvania vote,” the aide told me. Another White House source described it as a “jump ball” going into Election Day.

A Democrat close to the White House said Specter seemed to have stabilized over the weekend and that while it might have been true a week ago that the administration was sure he’d lose, “I’m not sure it’s true today.”

“It comes down to who can get their people to the polls, and my gut would be with Sestak,” the Democrat told me in an interview. “But Arlen Specter has won a lot of races in that state he had no business winning.”

The source said Specter has long established relationships with the Democratic establishment, especially in Philadelphia. That’s one reason he was always able to win tough general election campaigns in the perennial battleground state.

The Democrat close to the White House warned against drawing an “anti-establishment” conclusion from a potential Specter loss. “Given the fact that the most effective ads were the ones that Sestak ran with Bush, I don’t know how you can say this is an anti-Obama vote,” the source said.

The Republicans, meanwhile, had to shift their strategy in recent days when it seemed more and more likely that Sestak, not Specter, would face Toomey in the general election this fall. Friday afternoon the Toomey camp put out several hits on Sestak, calling him “too extreme” for the Keystone State and using his endorsement from MoveOn.org as an example.

“The Bush ad was effective and it really flaunted the opportunism of Senator Specter,” Toomey spokesman Tim Kelly told me in an interview. He said their camp thinks Specter may still win but that the ad was a major blow to an already damaged incumbent in a tough year for Washington insiders.

For all of Specter’s recent troubles, White House sources still say a last minute surge from the reliable Democratic machine, especially in Philadelphia, could push the final votes into the Specter column.

Still, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden aren’t taking the last-minute risk of campaigning in person for the embattled Specter. Obama has recorded robo-calls and did a get-out-the-vote call with Pennsylvania Democrats Friday afternoon to “rally the base,” the White House aide told me. Obama also is featured in Specter’s closing television and radio ads airing today.

The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America sent an email asking for phone banking volunteers on Friday night which noticeably didn’t mention a candidate’s name. Instead, it notes that, “The stakes of this election are high: ensuring that allies of the President are elected in the House and Senate to fight for change.” (Democrats say that’s to help get-out-the-vote for both the Senate race and the special House election in PA-12.) OFA introduced Specter to its volunteers in a conference call earlier this year, and the president and vice president have penned emails to generate support for Specter.

Some Democrats have snarked that Specter hasn’t run the best campaign, saying that the senator makes Martha Coakley’s failed campaign in Massachusetts this January look brilliant. For example, he used a coroner to defend against a television ad just as his rival is using words like “fresh” and “new” to remind voters that he’s 80.

An event with Biden failed to attract a large crowd and Pennsylvania sources have told us that the Specter campaign events have less energy than the Sestak rallies.

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