Republican vs. Republican

National | POLITICS: Hard-fought Senate primary in Pennsylvania between an upstart conservative and a patrician liberal is just a microcosm of battles that lie ahead in the Republican Party

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

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.

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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.


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