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The Specter Factor

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If there is any truth to the old saying that nothing is more exhilarating than being shot at and missed, then four-term Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., must feel especially energized.

Specter fought off an aggressive challenge from his right by Rep. Pat Toomey, taking 51 percent in last Tuesday's Republican primary. Turnout was light, meaning that Specter also defied the axiom that moderates and incumbents don't win close primaries when turnout is low, because their supporters tend to be less motivated to vote.

Some observers, including many Democrats, point to Specter's slim margin of victory as a sign that he will be very vulnerable in the fall, when he faces Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel. But Democrats' glee may be unwarranted.

First, the charge that hurt Specter the most in the primary-that he is liberal-is not likely to hurt him in the general election. In fact, Specter's moderate record is one of his strongest assets, because it makes him more attractive to moderates of all political stripes.

Second, Democrats will find it difficult to substantiate their claim that Specter has moved so far to the right in response to Toomey's challenge that he won't be viable in November. Toomey set a pretty high bar in terms of conservatism, and Specter never came close to clearing it. He talked of his support for President Bush's economic policy and won the National Rifle Association's endorsement. Yet he was the only Republican to address the state AFL-CIO convention in March and has generally been supportive of abortion rights. Specter's positions on many social issues are a lot closer to Hoeffel's than to Toomey's.

And Specter brings two significant advantages to the general election campaign: his seniority in the Senate and his long history of directing federal funds to the state. He touted both of those strengths during the primary.

Specter won the primary, in part, because of help from key conservatives. As Pennsylvania political analyst John Delano has pointed out, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a leading conservative voice in the Senate, helped to push Specter over the finish line by embracing him. And Santorum's endorsement was not merely a courtesy. He appeared in ads for Specter and actively campaigned for him. Bush also endorsed Specter and campaigned for him, but it was Santorum who gave Specter a conservative seal of approval.

Specter has proven to be a prolific fundraiser. He spent a great deal on his primary but doesn't have an empty war chest. According to campaign finance reports, he has raised $2.2 million for the general election, compared with Hoeffel's $800,000. Furthermore, Specter has traditionally been able to raise money from some Democratic constituencies, including organized labor, trial lawyers, and the Jewish community. And he should be able to tap those sources again. Specter's ability to co-opt some Democratic donors makes it extremely difficult for Hoeffel to raise the $7 million to $8 million he will need to be competitive.

All of these factors combine to create a tough road for Democrats.

The outcome of Tuesday's primary gave Senate Republicans their first solid break this year. Much went right for them last year-for example, five Democratic incumbents announced their retirements, opening up Southern seats in territory hospitable to the GOP. But since the start of this year, Senate Democrats have held the hot hand, partly because their recruiting paid off and their fundraising improved. Most important, GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado announced his retirement, putting a once-safe Republican seat into play and giving Democrats at least a theoretical shot at taking control of the Senate.

Democratic prospects were strengthened when party members united behind Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar as their nominee for Campbell's seat. Although the GOP thinks it now has a strong candidate in Peter Coors, the brewery magnate must face former Rep. Bob Schaffer in the Republican primary.

If Toomey had won Tuesday's primary in the Keystone State, his triumph would have amounted to another victory for Democrats, because it would have made Hoeffel the nominal favorite to win on November 2. As it stands now, Specter has a clear advantage.

Associate Editor Jennifer E. Duffy contributed to this report.

 
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