Why Arlen Specter Is in Trouble

Article excerpt

Polls are showing Sen. Arlen Specter trailing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic race for US Senate in Pennsylvania. Will he be the latest incumbent casualty?

There are three reasons why Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is sinking in his Democratic Senate primary race against Rep. Joe Sestak: One, his age (80). Two, his status as an incumbent. And three, until just over a year ago, he was a Republican.

"That's a very dangerous narrative to run on in this cycle," says Ken Smukler, a Democratic strategist based in Philadelphia. "These are Democratic primary voters who have been conditioned over the years to vote against Arlen Specter, and I think folks tend to underestimate just how difficult that hurdle is to overcome for him."

Of course, he's also Arlen Specter, with a 30-year record of aggressively advocating for Pennsylvania in Washington, and no one predicts the defeat of this institution lightly. And no analysts rule out that he can recover and win the primary, not least if something damaging comes out on Congressman Sestak in this last week before the May 18 vote.

But the momentum is definitely with Sestak, a 58-year-old retired career Navy admiral. On Tuesday, the Muhlenberg College/Morning Call daily tracking poll showed Sestak up by 4 points, the fourth straight day showing Sestak ahead. A Rasmussen poll out Monday shows Sestak leading 47 percent to 42 percent.

A lead vanished

Until recently, Specter had consistent double-digit leads in the polls. "No one knew Sestak, no one was hearing his message that Arlen is not one of us, and that he just switched to win reelection," says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pa.

Then a few weeks ago Sestak, who had been marshaling his resources, went up with TV ads, and the game changed. Sestak included a devastating clip of Specter on the day he joined the Democrats, on April 28, 2009, saying, "My change in party will enable me to be reelected."

In other footage, Specter was shown on a stage getting a strong testimonial from President George W. Bush, and also appearing with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and conservative former Sen. …