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Sestak seen as most likely to run against Specter in primary

Sestak seen as most likely to run against Specter in primary

With the Democratic Party seemingly lining up behind Senator Arlen Specter at the state and national levels, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) has emerged as the most likely candidate to buck party leaders and run against Specter, party insiders and political analysts say.

While Democrats across the state were issuing statements in support of Specter’s decision to switch parties Tuesday, Sestak was far more critical. He joined Republicans in lambasting Specter for political opportunism, and would not rule out a campaign of his own. His political profile, his large campaign war chest and his relative lack of ties to the state’s Democratic apparatus have made him the odds-on favorite to run.

“Sestak can run to the left [of Specter] because he has military credentials,” a House Democratic staffer said of the retired Navy Vice-Admiral.

The staffer added: “There’s a lot of Democrats that are angry that [Specter will] be the Democratic nominee, especially since he admitted it was such a political calculation. I think there will be a Democratic primary.”

With Gov. Ed Rendell reportedly asking protégé Joe Torsella to clear the field for Specter—a request Torsella has thus far rebuffed—some party insiders privately say that it’s only a matter of time before Sestak drops talk of the contest. But Sestak said repeatedly yesterday that he was still considering the race. His campaign manager and brother Richard Sestak did not immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday morning.

Larry Ceisler, a longtime Democratic political consultant who has been supportive of Specter, said it would be hard even for a politician as powerful as Rendell to clear the primary field.

“Democrats certainly do not have the discipline that Republicans have,” Ceisler said. “They couldn’t even clear it for Bob Casey [in 2006]”.

Sestak has never been a darling of the party. Considered more of a centrist Democrat, some party rank-and-file had been moving behind Democrat Bryan Lentz for the seat in 2006 before the party eventually backed Sestak. Lentz is now a state Representative, and is hoping for another shot at the Congressional seat if Sestak runs for Senate.

“A guy like Joe Sestak who’s … certainly not part of the Democratic political establishment in this state, I could certainly see him running,” Ceisler said.

A Democratic insider from Sestak’s Delaware County district agreed that Sestak wouldn’t be afraid to defy the party.

“I don’t think Sestak’s a normal politician in that regard,” he said.

But in the end, the prospect of going up against both President Obama and Rendell may be too daunting. Most analysts believe it would be a losing race.

“If the governor is supportive of Senator Specter as the Democratic nominee,” longtime Democratic political consultant David Dunphy said, “I think it makes it very hard for anyone else to raise the kind of money they’d need to run a truly competitive primary.”

UPDATE 2:30 p.m.—Richard Sestak e-mailed to reiterate Congressman Sestak’s earlier statement, writing:

“My brother, Congressman Joe Sestak, stands by his previously issued statement: ‘I am the 7th District Representative, and that is the focus of my attention. Beyond that, I have made no decision about my future.'”

UPDATE 3:10 p.m.—A Torsella campaign spokesman denies reports that Rendell has asked Torsella not to run. See story.

April 29, 2009 at 1:47 pm

--Dan Hirschhorn

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