More than seven months after stunning the political world by switching parties — and receiving a chorus of welcome from the nation's top Democrats — U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) exudes both determination and worry in his quest for re-election to a sixth term.
"I saw President Clinton yesterday and he said, 'How's it going?' and I said, 'I've got a tough race, Mr. President,' " Specter said during an interview last week at the Jewish Exponent offices. "He said, 'Oh, you'll find a way to win.' "
While many thought switching parties might prove a magic bullet, it hasn't been a seamless transition — though the move did land him a spot on the annual Forward 50 of influential Jews.
According to the latest Franklin & Marshall poll, released Oct. 29, Specter's job approval rating has fallen to 23 percent, its lowest level in 18 years.
To compound matters, he's taking fire on two fronts — from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7), who is challenging him in the Democratic Primary in May, and from Pat Toomey, the Republican contender for his seat.
Flanking him from the left, Sestak argues that Specter's votes with President George W. Bush on matters foreign and domestic helped steer the country in the wrong direction.
At the same time, Toomey — a fiscally and socially conservative former congressman from Allentown whose assault from the right helped drive the GOP's most prominent Jewish member from the party — has charged that Specter has "made a made dash to the left" since Sestak emerged as a real threat.
And the 79-year-old Specter, whose battle with cancer and other health problems have been well documented, is also having to contend with the notion that perhaps it's time for someone new — i.e., younger — to fill the seat. The lawmaker wouldn't bite on any questions to that effect, staying on point about his ability to win when others count him out.
He vigorously defended his Senate record — particularly when it came to Israel and issues of concern to the Jewish community — and argued that the seat is still his to lose and that he has plenty left to accomplish in public life.
"The poll rates of everybody have gone way, way down. If there was an open ballot, the voters would vote no. But as long as I'm running against somebody, I'm still in," he insisted, noting that he still leads both of his challengers in the polls.
On Negotiating With Iran
In the wide-ranging interview on Nov. 11, Specter — who had just come from a hearing on veterans affairs and was headed for the opening of Temple's new Hillel building — held court on issues ranging from Iran to health care to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The state's senior senator, whose granddaughters attend Jewish day schools and who has a grand-niece in the Israeli army, said he has deep financial support in the Jewish community and that neither of his opponents has a strong track record with Jewish voters.
He voiced support for the negotiating process concerning Iran's nuclear ambitions, as well as for President Barack Obama's overall approach toward Tehran.
"It's a snail's pace but it is a pace. There is some movement there," he said, adding he wanted to keep working on diplomacy. Still, he said, "it's unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. The military option is on the table, and they know it."
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Specter said the United States should remain deeply involved. When asked if the administration's focus on halting Israeli settlement building — a position Obama has softened somewhat — had hurt negotiations, Specter refrained from criticizing the president directly.
"There is good evidence that George W. Bush and Clinton before him gave Israel latitude on the settlements," said Specter, referring to the understanding between Israel and the United States allowing for what is known as the natural growth of settlements.
Israel Prime Minister Benjaming Netanyahu "has a very strong point — when families expand, they have to have another bedroom. I think Netanyahu is right. The settlements are not the issue, Iran is the issue," the senator added.
He also described Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas as "a well-intentioned, nice fellow, not particularly strong."
Abbas, often described as a relative moderate, recently announced that he does not plan to seek re-election in January — a move that has concerned officials in Washington and Jerusalem — but Specter thinks he can be dissuaded from leaving office.
On the domestic front, Specter said his vote in February in favor of the $787 federal stimulus plan — made when he was still a member of the Republican Party — was the most important of his career.
"Had I not taken the position that I did on the stimulus, there wouldn't have been a stimulus," declared Specter.
On the next major legislation to clear the congressional hurdle — health care reform — Specter has been an outspoken advocate. A once bitter opponent of the Clinton health reform plan during the 1990s, Specter said the difference between then and now was "the giant bureaucracy" and the single-payer system proposed back then. In contrast, he said he supports the public option in the current legislation as one way to insure the uninsured because it is just one part of the reform.
But now that he's no longer a maverick senator from a minority party with the ability to sway the few remaining GOP moderates — and in fact has lost his long-held seniority — can he have the same influence in what is sure to be a difficult fight to pass health care legislation in the Senate?
He Plans to Outspend Them
Though Specter said publicly that he had struck a deal with Senate Democratic leadership to maintain his seniority after switching parties, the Senate passed a resolution soon after that stripped him of his position of five committees. But Specter said in the interview, "I'm going to get my seniority back. The arrangement I made with Sen. [Harry] Reid was that I would get the seniority I had if I was elected as a Democrat in 1980."
He also said that he represents the important 60th vote needed to pass a bill and that his stature and influence are not reliant upon his official seniority status.
In seeking re-election, Specter plans to execute a tried-and-true formula — highlight his own record while outspending his opponents. Specter has more than $8.7 million in his campaign war chest.
By comparison, as of of Sept. 30, Sestak had $4.7 million on hand to spend, according to Federal Election Commission records. Toomey had just over $1.8 million.
"I'm not making any predictions," the senator said. "But I've got a lot of money in the bank and I'm going to have a lot more money in the bank."
While Specter made clear that he had no illusions about coasting to victory, he appears confident about his support in the Jewish community — many of whom are Democrats who backed him when he was a Republican.
Although he doesn't expect 100 percent of the Jewish vote, he said, "no one has been a stronger supporter of Jewish values than I. People who are concerned about Israel will support me."