Throughout his long political career, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has frustrated both conservatives and liberals among his constituents and colleagues by staking out the middle ground on a host of issues, from the war in Iraq to comprehensive immigration reform and even the value of congressional earmarks.
But if the five-term senator has his way, he'll be representing the state until at least 2016.
"I've made my plans very plain: I'm running for re-election," said Specter, during a wide-ranging interview at the Jewish Exponent.
Specter — who is a brain-tumor and Hodgkin's disease survivor — will turn 78 this month, which doesn't raise an eyebrow for him when he runs in 2010.
In 2004, he barely survived a GOP primary challenge from fiscal and social conservative Pat Toomey, a former congressman. Both President George W. Bush and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum campaigned heavily for him, and neither of them will be in office two years from now.
There's been some speculation that come 2010, Toomey will run for governor of Pennsylvania rather than seek a rematch with Specter. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell won't be eligible to run for another term.
So is Specter announcing on the early side to help Toomey make up his mind?
"That's something he has to decide for himself," replied the senator, when asked if he'd tried to talk Toomey out of another bid.
Toomey, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth, remarked that he has not made a decision yet.
A Believer in Diplomacy
The hourlong interview last month came about week after Specter returned from the Middle East, having met in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad, which marked his 17th visit to the Arab nation since 1984.
(According to published reports, Specter and U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., announced that Assad had agreed to release several political prisoners, but the Syrian leader later denied having made any sort of deal.)
Specter reiterated his belief in the necessity to engage diplomatically with countries like Syria and Iran. He claimed, as he has numerous times in the past, that Damascus, in particular, may be ready to make peace with Israel, become an American ally, and serve to function as a potential bulwark against rising Iranian power in the region.
Many believe that Specter has made a Syrian-Israeli deal a personal mission — almost an obsession. But he dismissed that notion, arguing that it's just one priority of his among many, and that he wouldn't support such a bargain unless conditions were ripe.
Any Jerusalem-Damascus accord would inevitably require the Jewish state to cede all or the majority of the Golan Heights.
But in recent years, by supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and terrorist groups inside Iraq and, in all likelihood, plotting the assignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, hasn't Damascus proven itself to be a bad player on the international stage? Why invest so much time and hope in such a government?
In fact, he seem roused when posed with the accusation that Syria has a lousy track record.
"Lousy track record? If you look for good records in international politics, you won't find one," replied Specter, who said that Syria's decision to attend the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Md., is evidence that the country is on the right track.
"The word is that Iran did not want Syria to come to Annapolis — and Syria went. These are signs that they need a push," stressed Specter.
"You have to engage these countries in conversation," he said of Syria, and of two of the "Axis of Evil" countries, North Korea and Iran. "I think sanctions are fine, but they are not the end of the line. I think you've got to keep trying. I don't think you stay home and pull the blankets over your head."
'We Don't Dump Presidents'
With regard to the political crisis in Pakistan — a nuclear power — Specter did not offer a definitive answer on what course U.S. policy should take, especially after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
"We have to see how events evolve there and make an evaluation as to the best course of action," said Specter, before seeming to offer a tepid endorsement of continued American support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. "We don't dump presidents of foreign countries. But there might be some legislative changes where we might condition money to Musharraf."
Concerning a hot topic much closer to home — the race for the GOP presidential nomination — Specter reiterated that he wasn't supporting any candidate.
Said Specter, who himself briefly ran for the White House in 1996, "I'm very interested in finding a Republican who would be pro-choice and in tune with modernity on gay rights."