Visitors can tell right away that Lancaster, Pa., is farm country. It's not just the tractors chugging along the two-lane roads or the Amish men in their earth-stained work clothes. Rather, it's the smell of manure that hangs in the air like an olfactory ode to the region's economic base. But the 1,000 or so conservatives gathered at a Lancaster hotel on April 23 thought they could sense something different in the air: the sweet smell of victory. After 24 years as one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate, Arlen Specter was in the race of his political life. And James Dobson was in town to drive the final nail into his coffin.
"I do have to tell you that it's a little out of character for me to be here tonight," Mr. Dobson said in endorsing Pat Toomey, a three-term congressman with a solidly conservative voting record. "I don't do this. I simply don't do this. My commitment is to marriage, children, and the institution of the family. I have not wanted to be dragged into the political arena, and I've never even endorsed a presidential candidate. But I feel like I have to get it all out because there is so much at stake."
High stakes, indeed: As heir to the gavel on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Specter would be in a position to control judicial appointments during a second term for President Bush. Though the senator cast a pivotal vote against conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987, Mr. Bush apparently decided to make nice rather than making waves. Despite deep ideological differences, he campaigned actively for Mr. Specter, appearing with the Pennsylvania liberal at a rally in the state's conservative heartland.
Other Republicans, however, weren't willing to be so pragmatic. A stream of conservative all-stars offered their support to Mr. Toomey, including Steve Forbes, Mr. Bork, and of course Mr. Dobson. The Club for Growth, a conservative interest group, poured millions of dollars into the race, helping to offset Mr. Specter's 3-to-1 fundraising advantage.
"Basically, Arlen Specter is going around the state saying, 'I'm the one who brings home the bacon,'" said Club president Stephen Moore. "Whereas Pat Toomey is the opposite-he's not the candidate who is bringing home the bacon, he's the candidate who is cutting the taxes."
Thanks to such high-profile, high-dollar support, Mr. Toomey surprised the political establishment by climbing steadily in the polls against an entrenched, well-funded opponent. Indeed, in a last-minute conference call with the media, Mr. Toomey predicted, with extraordinary specificity, that he would win with 51.7 percent of the vote. That precise number drew laughs from several reporters on the call, but months of steadily climbing poll numbers made it hard to write off the prediction entirely.
Mr. Specter's internal polling numbers must have convinced him that the contest was no laughing matter, either. Appearing at a Philadelphia gun show 48 hours before the election, he appeared subdued, even melancholy. After a few references to the Second Amendment-and numerous references to his endorsement by Mr. Bush-he acknowledged that his own supporters weren't as enthusiastic as his opponent's. Success, he said, might depend on a big turnout.
In the end, Mr. Specter turned out just 17,000 more supporters than Mr. Toomey, out of a total of more than 1 million votes cast. Come November, he'll desperately need the help of Mr. Toomey's 510,000 backers in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 600,000. Mr. Toomey moved quickly to heal the wounds of a bruising primary. In a post-midnight concession speech, he offered his "unequivocal support" to the incumbent he had nearly ousted. "Our differences," he said of himself and Mr. Specter, "are not nearly as great as our differences with the Democrats."
Whatever happens next in Pennsylvania, Mr. Toomey's loss will hardly put an end to the Republicans' intra-party squabbling around the country. If anything, it merely raises the stakes in other primaries where GOP moderates are facing off against conservatives. While the president seems focused on retaining nominal control of the Senate, conservatives want something more: ideological control. With much of the conservative agenda stalled in the Senate-think permanent tax cuts, a human cloning ban, judicial logjam broken (or at least more aggressively attacked)-activists believe they could break through with just a couple more true believers in the upper chamber.
But if even a left-leaning Republican like Mr. Specter can't be dislodged by an energetic young challenger, where can conservatives hope to pick up the votes they need? The answer lies in open seats. Eight senators are retiring this year (five Democrats, three Republicans), and scores of hopefuls have signed up to replace them. Florida alone has nearly a dozen challengers competing to succeed Democrat Bob Graham, and eight South Carolinians hope to take over for Democrat Fritz Hollings.
In some cases, like South Carolina, any of the GOP candidates would be far more conservative than the incumbent. Elsewhere, however, conservatives are fighting hard to stay even. In last month's Illinois primary, for instance, banker-turned-schoolteacher Jack Ryan cheered conservatives by edging out dairy owner Jim Oberweis, who once compared pro-lifers to the Taliban. But Mr. Ryan will now face State Sen. Barack Obama, a leftist Democrat in a state that is trending increasingly leftward. An Obama win in November would represent a huge ideological shift away from the views of GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who is retiring after one term.
Illinois, like Pennsylvania, presented voters with a relatively clear conservative-vs.-moderate choice. But it's often not as easy as that. Liberal Republicans know they have to toe the conservative line in most states in order to appeal to the GOP grass roots, who turn out strongly in primaries. Though Mr. Specter, for instance, ranks consistently in the bottom 5 percent of Republican senators rated by the National Taxpayers Union-"the bottom of the pork barrel," in the words of NTU President John Berthoud-he swerves to the right every six years when it's time to face the voters.
With an eye to the Senate's ideological balance, conservatives this primary season are trying to winnow out the moderates from the true believers. Now that important races in Illinois and Pennsylvania have been decided (conservatives 1, moderates 1), most of the buzz centers on open seats in Florida and Colorado.
More than a half-dozen
Florida Republicans have lined up to replace former Democratic presidential hopeful Bob Graham, who is retiring after three terms. State Sen. Daniel Webster, State House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, and former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum have all tried laying claim to the party's right wing.
Meanwhile, a late entrant is gaining in the polls even while he remains a big question mark among the state's political powerbrokers. Mel Martinez, a former Orlando official tapped by Mr. Bush to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, joined the race in March and quickly put together an imposing fundraising machine. With his political base in vote-rich Orlando plus strong ethnic loyalties among South Florida's large Cuban population, Mr. Martinez makes a formidable candidate.
And then, of course, there are his ties to the Bush administration. Sen. George Allen, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, worked hard to lure Mr. Martinez into the race, based largely on his rapport with the president. Mr. Allen told the Associated Press he looks for candidates with whom the president will be comfortable sharing a podium. "Mel Martinez fits that criteria," Mr. Allen said. "He was his Cabinet secretary, he was part of the president's team. Clearly they'd be a good team together here in Florida."
Conservative leaders in Florida aren't sure they want Mr. Martinez in the game, however. "Mel Martinez is kind of the mystery candidate," said Bill Stephens, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. "Whether he's more moderate or conservative is yet to be seen, I think."
Mr. Martinez's complete lack of a voting record on hot-button social issues makes it hard for many conservatives to gauge his commitment to their cause, and the candidate so far has focused on filling his war chest rather than filling in the blanks on his resumé.
With little of substance to go on, conservatives worry about Mr. Martinez largely because of his friends. Rep. Mark Foley, a liberal GOP congressman from South Florida, is one of Mr. Martinez's most ardent supporters, and there are rumors the former HUD secretary was the personal pick of Karl Rove, the White House's supremely pragmatic political adviser.
Though Mr. McCollum narrowly leads in the polls-thanks largely to the name recognition he achieved in an earlier Senate run-Mr. Martinez is gaining ground quickly, and he may be able to lock up the nomination without ever having to sharply define his views. Observers like Mr. Stephens worry that a three-way battle among the conservative candidates will split the party's right wing, allowing Mr. Martinez to coast to victory.
Like Mr. Martinez, Colorado's late entry into the Senate primary is both well known and completely unknown at the same time. Pete Coors, scion of the state's beer-brewing dynasty, jumped into the ring only after many more experienced candidates refused to run.
The Coors family has long supported conservative political causes, but Mr. Coors himself has so far been vague about his positions. A lengthy statement on his hurriedly assembled campaign website stressed economics and national security without so much as mentioning family values or social issues. Mr. Coors says he is pro-life, though it remains to be seen exactly how he'll define the term. He also opposes the death penalty, based, he says, on his respect for the sanctity of life.
Former Rep. Bob Schaffer, an ardently pro-life social conservative, had already collected the endorsements of most party leaders, including former Sen. Bill Armstrong, the godfather of Colorado's conservative movement. But the last-minute announcement by Mr. Coors started a stampede of sorts among more moderate Republicans, setting up a classic right-vs.-center battle for the nomination. Or, in the words of the Denver Post's longtime political analyst, Fred Brown: "It's the right against the further right. Schaffer's supporters are more committed to a cause; Coors's supporters are more committed to a victory."
Already there are signs the campaign will be a tough one. Mr. Schaffer wasted no time in criticizing Mr. Coors for past donations to state Attorney Gen. Ken Salazar, the Democrats' likely Senate nominee this year. The Coors campaign shot back that corporate donations are determined by a board that operates without interference from Mr. Coors himself.
With ideological control of the Senate at stake, such sniping is sure to continue-and intensify. Wins by conservative candidates in Colorado and Florida could help inch the Senate to the right, freeing up the president's political agenda from the moderate-liberal purgatory where it languishes.
-with reporting by John Dawson in Lancaster, Pa.