HARRISBURG, Pa. — In a rival's ad, five-term U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is caught in a moment of political boasting, saying his switch last year from Republican to Democrat "will enable me to be re-elected" — drawing out the word elected for emphasis.
Not so fast, Arlen.
The Senate primary Tuesday is too close to call after a surge in the polls by Specter's opponent, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who had trailed Pennsylvania's longest-serving senator by high double-digits just last month. The strong anti-incumbent sentiment among the electorate and Sestak's ad linking Specter to President George W. Bush and Sarah Palin — and including that bit of bravado — have boosted the challenger's prospects.
"Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job — his — not yours," the ad says.
Specter, 80, a centrist first elected in 1980, has survived tough election battles by appealing to moderate voters. This time, he is struggling to convince voters that he's the true Democrat in the primary race.
He has the backing of President Barack Obama, who appears in a television ad, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and Gov. Ed Rendell. Party operatives and some labor unions are mobilizing with all the force they can to save Specter.
"This is probably the first primary election in long time where we've gone all out," said Rick Bloomingdale, president-elect of the nearly 800,000-member AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania.
Specter has highlighted his votes for Obama's agenda, including the health care law. He's tried to distance himself from the GOP, pointing to Democratic priorities he backed while he was a Republican, such as the minimum wage, abortion rights and Obama's economic stimulus package.
"They called me a RINO (Republican-in-name-only) for decades because they didn't like my votes as a Republican, because I stood up against the party," Specter told reporters after a televised debate with Sestak this month.
Specter is known as a survivor, overcoming a brain tumor, cardiac arrest following bypass surgery and two bouts with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
Sestak, 58, a former Navy vice admiral and second-term congressman from suburban Philadelphia, has cast himself as the real Democrat in the race who can be trusted to support Obama. Sestak has tried to tie the recession to Specter's votes for bank deregulation, the Iraq war and Bush's 2001 tax cut, which many Democrats criticized as a giveaway to the wealthy.
"No career politician who's been there for 30 years and helped get us into this mess can be relied upon to help get us out, even if Arlen Specter switched parties to keep his job," Sestak said at a campaign event in Harrisburg this week.
Sestak's latest ad is airing throughout Pennsylvania and links Specter to his recent Republican past. It uses part of Specter's full quote: "My change in party will enable me to be re-elected and I have heard that again and again and again on the street: 'Senator, we're glad you'll be able to stay in the Senate and help the state and the nation.'"
Sestak has made Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court an issue in the race, challenging Specter to explain why he opposed Kagan's appointment as solicitor general last year, when he was a Republican. Specter has said he opposed her then because she wouldn't answer questions about how she'd approach cases.
After meeting with Kagan on Thursday, Specter said she was forthcoming and gave her high marks.
Asked about Sestak's criticism, Specter told reporters, "Every move I make he's trying to politicize. He might want to rush to judgment and make a decision before a hearing, before knowing what the facts are, but I take these things very seriously."
Sestak has the endorsement of the political action committee of NARAL, a national abortion-rights group — despite Specter's record in supporting abortion rights.
In recent weeks, Specter reported $5.8 million cash on hand, twice as much as Sestak. The two candidates had spent more than $8 million on the race.