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Candidates Work Hard to Woo the Community

May 6, 2010 By:
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U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (left) and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter Photos by Greg Bezanis

Making his re-election pitch inside an Elkins Park synagogue earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter ratcheted up his criticism of President Barack Obama's dealings with Israel.

"I say publicly: You are wrong, Mr. President," Specter said Sunday afternoon, referring to the administration's call for Israel to cease building in eastern Jerusalem, and news reports of Obama's private chastising of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The five-term senator, who is again battling to extend his political career, is locked in a tight race with U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak in the upcoming May 18 primary.

A Quinnipiac Poll on Monday showed Sestak gaining on Specter.

He's trailing 39 percent to 47 percent; on April 7, he was down 32 percent to 53 percent.

The winner of that race is expected to face Republican Pat Toomey in the general election in November. When he switched parties last spring to run as a Democrat -- in part to avoid a contest with Toomey he didn't think he could win -- Specter portrayed himself as a staunch ally of the president.

In an interview with the Jewish Exponent in November -- before the latest flare-up, but after tension between Jerusalem and Washington simmered over the issue of settlements -- Specter was reluctant to criticize Obama directly. In a March speech on the Senate floor, he urged both Jerusalem and Washington to cool down their rhetoric, but refrained from outright critiquing the president.

Obama's actions regarding Israel have proved unpopular among some Jews. During remarks at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania's history tailored his stump speech to a Jewish audience as he fights for every vote in a race that could go down to the wire.

"Jerusalem is where we Jews have built for thousands of years. It is different from the rest of the West Bank," Specter said to about 60 people. About twice that number were on hand to listen to Sestak, who spoke prior to the incumbent. In contrast to their televised debate the night before, the two adversaries were not in the room at the same time.

Specter also told the crowd that the president's "heart is in the right place," but that Obama needed more information and experience when it comes to the Middle East.

Specter added that in the wake of diplomatic tension that arose when Israel announced building plans as Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, Israel's ambassador to the United States sought his advice almost immediately. Specter recalled that he cautioned the ambassador, Michael Oren, to avoid using the word "crisis" in describing U.S.-Israeli relations.

Oren confirmed that exchange, saying that Specter was one of the legislators he contacted to clarify Israel's position on Jerusalem. "The senator's advice and insights were much appreciated," Oren told the Exponent.

Although Specter has forged decades-long ties with members of the Philadelphia Jewish community, Sestak has been working that same sector hard, unwilling to cede any ground on that front. Throughout the campaign, he has been reaching out to Jews publicly and behind the scenes.

Both candidates spoke at a recent local event for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby. Sestak also sought -- and recently got -- a closed-door meeting with officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other communal leaders.

During his appearance at Keneseth Israel, the retired naval admiral largely focused on domestic issues, like health care.

But when asked about Israel, Sestak -- who has taken flak for, among other things, signing a congressional letter in January urging Israel to lift its economic blockade of Gaza -- spoke about his meetings with Israeli security officials, including his efforts to help Israel gain access to an American-made combat ship. He also offered his own assessment that could be considered an indirect criticism of the administration's approach, although his campaign spokesman said it was more about moving forward than criticizing the president.

"Israel will be less willing to take risks for peace if it doesn't feel the U.S. is 100 percent behind it," said Sestak. "I strongly believe that Israel is our vital ally, but I honestly do believe that we and Israel are both more secure when there is peace."

The program at Keneseth Israel came less than 24 hours after the candidates' one and only debate. It represented one of the few times throughout the campaign that the two had appeared at the same event.

According to organizers, Sestak had agreed to speak first; Specter signed on a few days before the program. Toomey, who is expected to cruise to victory against Peg Luksik in the GOP primary, was invited to attend but declined.

Sestak's primary challenge, coupled with a potential general election matchup against Toomey, has presented Specter, one of the country's most powerful Jewish politicians, with one of his career's most difficult roads to re-election -- though he only squeaked by to victory in 1992 and 2004.

The longtime Republican switched parties nearly a year ago in the wake of his vote in favor of the federal stimulus package and poll numbers that showed he couldn't win another GOP primary.

Sestak has argued that this party switch smacked of political opportunism and should not be rewarded.

Specter said that he has always been a political moderate, and unlike, for example, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- who he mentioned by name -- he has not moved rightward to stay with the GOP.

While Specter has led Sestak in the polls all along, pollster Terry Madonna said that there are enough undecided voters to give Sestak a strong chance.

"They are not going to vote for Arlen," Madonna said, noting that undecided voters rarely make last-minute picks for an incumbent. "All he can do is make sure that they don't vote Sestak."

Specter can likely count on the support of many of the community's movers and shakers, and he had his backers at Sunday's synagogue event, attended largely by senior citizens.

"He's tenacious. I think Specter is the only Democrat in this race that can beat Pat Toomey," said Robert Rovner, a former Republican state senator who later sought office as a Democrat. "For Israel and the Jewish community, I think this is the most important race."

But there was also some of that indecision apparent.

Lorrie Lichtenfeld said she was undecided, and was still upset about how Specter had grilled law professor Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas's 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings. "I have some qualms about Specter; I have always felt he was a bit of an opportunist," she said.

Marjorie Gabel said that she was undecided as well, but was leaning toward Specter: "I think because of his longevity, Arlen Specter still commands more clout in Washington."

Longevity doesn't win points with Spencer Solodar, who said that he still laments donating to Specter's campaign for Philadelphia District Attorney in the 1960s. Solodar stood, and blaming Specter for the rightward drift of the Supreme Court, said: "I think I've been cheated, and I want my money back."

Noting that he supported the nomination of liberal justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and helped derail the nomination of conservative Robert Bork, Specter replied: "I think you have gotten your money's worth, sir. I could have made a lot more money if I stayed in private practice. If anybody here ought to complain about money, it's me, not you."  

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