Specter's Lead Dwindles in Pennsylvania Senate Primary Contest, Poll Shows

Arlen Specter’s challenger has closed the gap in his bid to defeat the five-term U.S. senator in Pennsylvania’s May 18 Democratic primary, a poll found.

Specter was backed by 47 percent of the primary’s likely voters, while U.S. Representative Joe Sestak was supported by 39 percent, according to a survey released yesterday by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

The eight-percentage-point lead for Specter is down from the 21-point advantage he had in a comparable poll released April 7. That survey showed Specter with 53 percent, Sestak with 32 percent.

While Specter “remains ahead, momentum is clearly on Sestak’s side at this point” in the fight for the Democratic nomination, said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Specter, 80, left the Republican Party a year ago to become a Democrat after early polls showed he might lose the Republican nomination for another Senate term.

He was welcomed into the Democratic Party by President Barack Obama, who is backing him in the primary race. Sestak, 58, resisted entreaties from some party leaders to refrain from taking on Specter.

‘Tough Habit’

“As a Republican, Specter did well among Democrats, but large majorities of Democrats have been voting against him for 30 years and that might be a tough habit for many of them to break,” said Brown.

Still, 60 percent of the likely primary voters said they believed Specter, who first won his Senate seat in 1980, would win the November general election. Sestak was rated a winner in November by 23 percent.

The April 28-May 2 poll of 930 voters has an error margin of plus-or-minus 3.2 percentage points.

The likely Republican nominee in the Senate race is former U.S. Representative Pat Toomey, 48. Six years ago Toomey challenged Specter in Pennsylvania’s Republican Senate primary and lost to him by 2 percentage points. Specter was aided in the campaign’s waning days by a campaign visit by then-President George W. Bush.

Fundraising reports by Specter’s campaign showed that he raised $1.2 million in 2010’s first quarter and finished March with $9.1 million in cash. Toomey raised $2.3 million and had $4 million in the bank, according to his campaign website.

Sestak, who represents a district comprised largely of Philadelphia suburbs, raised $442,000 and had $5.3 million in accounts from both House and Senate political committees, his campaign said.

‘Tossup’ Rating

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the general- election race for the Senate seat a “tossup.”

When he became a Democrat last year, Specter said he was doing so because the Republican Party had “shifted very far to the right.”

His vote in February 2009 for Obama’s economic stimulus measure had fueled discontent toward him among many Pennsylvania Republicans.

“I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate,” Specter said at a Washington news conference in discussing his party switch.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter S. Green in New York at psgreen@bloomberg.net.

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