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Specter and Sestak go back-to-back with DelCo Dems

BROOMALL—Delaware County Democrats packed the Marple Public Library’s meeting room here Thursday night to hear the party’s two leading Senate candidates speak one after the other, but the event had an away-game feel for incumbent Senator Arlen Specter.

Specter, who recently became a Democrat after decades as a Republican, took his re-election campaign to the political home base of his likely rival, Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7). And even as Specter sought to win over some of the most skeptical Democratic insiders he faces, Sestak continued to make it clear that his candidacy is all but certain at this point.

“I’m in this race because … it’s something I believe we all need a choice about,” Sestak said.

The Congressman got a standing ovation from his fellow Democrats as he entered the room, in sharp contrast to the measured but respectful applause for Specter.

“I could go on and on and on at great length and tell you about the Democratic values that I’ve supported” even as a Republican, Specter said.

But party insiders wanted reassurance, and over a dozen people in attendance rose to ask questions.

Their uncertainty touched upon economic issues such as health care and energy, as well as topics like sex education and judicial confirmations. And not surprisingly, they wanted to know where Specter stands on the Employee Free Choice Act.

Specter reiterated his stance that he is working hard to find a compromise on the “card-check” bill.

“I believe that the secret ballot has to be maintained,” Specter said. “I want the voter inside the curtain, doing what the voter wants.”

Sestak, who spoke after Specter, has always strongly backed the legislation, but he said he was also open to tweaking the bill if the adjustments get support from organized labor.

“If they can come up with a compromise that the unions support, I’m all for it,” he said.

Some Democrats asked the candidates where they stood on single-payer health care. Neither came out in favor, but both supported a public health insurance plan that Americans could join if they found private insurance unattainable or undesirable. It appeared to be the first time Specter has explicitly backed the public option for health care that so many of his former GOP colleagues loathe.

But despite some agreement, the differences between the two became stark, mostly centering on whether Democrats should entrust their party’s nomination to Specter, who has acknowledged he switched parties to avoid a Republican primary defeat next year.

“I don’t mind conversions,” Sestak said. “I’m a Catholic. I understand conversions. We welcome you. But the Pope doesn’t say, ‘He’s your bishop and everybody else sit down.’”

Specter, who has the support of many prominent Democrats like President Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell, said their endorsements didn’t amount to the final word on his candidacy.

“Should I turn down Ed Rendell’s support? Should I turn down Vice President Biden’s support? Absolutely not,” Specter said. “To say that my reason for running is that I’ve been anointed is simply not so.”

Sestak, meanwhile, sought to capitalize on the odd fit Specter makes as a Democrat, particularly based on his support for the Iraq War and former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts.

Recent polling suggests that Sestak faces a rough campaign trail ahead. A Rasmussen survey earlier this week showed the Specter leading Sestak by 19 percentage points.

Nonetheless, some area Democrats, like Delaware County Democratic Party Chairman Cliff Wilson and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, who mounted a challenge to Specter’s reelection in 2004, have encouraged Sestak to run.

And polling data could bolster the idea that the Democrats don’t need the more centrist and better-known Specter to defeat Republican Pat Toomey in the general election next fall. Rasmussen has Sestak beating Toomey by six percentage points, though it has Specter edging him by 11 points.

“Either one is going to win next November, Sestak or Specter,” Wilson said. “Toomey isn’t going to Washington.”

In supporting Sestak, state Representative Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) said the Congressman could eventually acquire something close to the elevated public stature Specter has gained after almost three decades in the Senate.

“I think by the time this race is over, they will know [Sestak] in the coffee shops of Erie, Pennsylvania,” Vitali said. “He has that kind of energy. My money’s on Joe.”

June 19, 2009 at 1:17 am

--Bradley Vasoli

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