Pennsylvania's Brawl for the GOP's Soul

The party's right wing wants to see moderate Senator Specter trounced in Tuesday's primary -- even though he has Bush's support

By Richard S. Dunham

My beloved native state of Pennsylvania hasn't been much of a national leader in anything since the days of Ben Franklin -- although it's near the top of the pack in lost manufacturing jobs, population stagnation, underperforming schools, and political corruption. But for the second time in two elections, the Keystone State is playing host to a statewide primary election to determine the soul of a political party.

In 2002, probusiness "New Democrat" Ed Rendell won the Democratic nomination for governor (and ultimately the big prize) against old-style, labor-supporting, social conservative Bob Casey Jr. Rendell is a fiscal moderate in a state where most Democrats are old-fashioned economic liberals from "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." He's also a social liberal in a state where many Catholic and African-American voters are far more culturally conservative. But Rendell surprise victory proved that an optimistic, charismatic New Democratic moderate has a future in the liberal-dominated Democratic Party.


  This year's primary will determine if there's room for a powerful moderate senator in the conservative-dominated Republican Party. Arlen Specter, a four-term incumbent who has turned back right-wing primary challenges before, faces an aggressive, charismatic challenger in the Apr. 27 primary: Allentown Congressman Pat Toomey, a down-the-line social conservative and a committed supply-sider. Toomey has an army of Christian conservatives, movement conservatives, and economic conservatives trying to oust the party's most popular statewide elected official.

Specter's defeat would be a defining moment for the modern conservative movement. Some GOP conservatives say they wouldn't even mind if Toomey lost to the Democratic challenger in the fall. To them, removing an annoying, unreliable Republican from the Congress is their paramount goal.

This election hinges on turnout. Among all registered Republicans, Specter has a huge lead, 50% to 26%, with 24% undecided, according to Franklin & Marshall College's Keystone Poll, conducted Apr. 13-20. But among the most likely voters, the GOP electorate tilts to the right, and Specter's lead shrinks to the 46% to 40% range.


  The race is attracting the energies of the GOP stalwarts, including no less than President Bush -- who, by the way, wants to keep Specter in office. Magazine publisher and former Presidential candidate Steve Forbes has stumped for Toomey. Former Judge Robert Bork, whose nomination to the Supreme Court the moderate Specter opposed, has railed against the incumbent.

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, a conservative-values organization, and one of the old lions of the Religious Right, sees the election as "the climax of the civil war of values that's been raging for 35 years," as he said to The New York Times' James Dao. "This is the Gettysburg. This is the D-Day, the Stalingrad. We must oppose those who have done so much to create the mess that we're in."

We Pennsylvanians take references to Gettysburg -- that bloody clash in south-central Pennsylvania of seven score and one year ago -- quite seriously. Still, the Specter-Toomey race could be as pivotal in the civil war raging in the Republican Party as was the Battle of Gettysburg to the War between the States.

Specter, a centrist through and through, is an anachronism in a hard-right Republican Party. He's a mushy moderate from the Northeast in a Capitol Hill dominated by in-your-face Sunbelt warriors such as "The Hammer," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, and "Baby Doc," the sweet-faced, iron-willed heart surgeon, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.


  Though he votes with his conservative leadership most of the time, Specter has infuriated GOP purists over the years by voting against Bill Clinton's impeachment (remember the obscure Scottish verdict, "not proven," that Specter cited?), failing to favor every tax cut that supply-siders dream up, and opposing much of the social-conservative agenda, from abortion bans to prayer in schools.

And, of course, Specter bears his original sin: helping to torpedo Bork's controversial nomination. "The biggest obstacle to a progrowth, traditional-values, strong-defense agenda is a liberal Republican like Specter," Toomey recently told my BusinessWeek colleague Alexandra Starr.

No doubt, Toomey represents the ascendant wing of the national Republican Party, just as Specter represents the last, battered remnants of the Rockefeller Republicans. Pennsylvania, however, has more Rockefeller Republicans than DeLay/Frist Republicans.

Specter's best argument is a pragmatic one. He says a centrist Republican has a better chance to win in politically moderate Pennsylvania than a conservative true believer. Indeed, the track record of Republican moderates has been pretty good in the past half-century: Centrist GOP winners include current Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and ex-Governors Bill Scranton and Ray Shafer. However, the list of Republican victors also includes one conservative flamethrower, Specter's fellow senator, Rick Santorum.


  With Republicans trying to hang on to their tiny, 51-vote Senate majority, some in the conservative Establishment aren't prepared to rock the boat. Santorum and President Bush have thrown in their lot with Specter, arguing that he would stand a better chance than Toomey of holding the seat against moderate Democratic Representative Joe Hoeffel on Nov. 2.

After conservative commentator Robert Novak wrote a column blasting Specter, White House political guru Karl Rove defended the embattled incumbent. "We're supporting the Senate Republican majority," Rove said during a campaign swing through Pennsylvania. "We're a big party. If we did everything Novak wanted us to do, we'd be this itty bitty," making a tiny circle with his fingers.

Despite the energetic support of Rove and Bush, who has cut TV ads for Specter, the once-formidable front-runner has good reason to worry. Toomey has caught fire with the right wing, and activists of the left and right are the people most likely to show up and vote in primary elections. Polls show Specter's lead shrinking. (Toomey's people contend it's collapsing.) If current trends hold, Toomey could overtake Specter by primary day.


  The senator's nightmare could be his home base in the Philadelphia area. In the southeastern Pennsylvania suburbs -- a hotbed of moderation -- Specter leads Toomey among all registered Republican, 57% to 24%. Among likely voters, however, Toomey trails by only 4 percentage points, 40% to 44%. Unless Specter identifies and turns out latent supporters, he could lose.

Two years ago, Rendell surprised the pundits who declared that moderate Democrats had no future in the post-Clinton era. Keystone State voters will soon decide if they see a future for centrist Republicans in the era of George Bush -- even if Bush supports them.

Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington-based chief political correspondent. Follow his views in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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