Specter to repay Santorum

Faced with the prospect of losing to a conservative congressman in the 2004 Senate Republican primary, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) called on Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s conservative junior senator, to help extend his political career.

Faced with the prospect of losing to a conservative congressman in the 2004 Senate Republican primary, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) called on Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s conservative junior senator, to help extend his political career.

When Specter led Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) by just a few points in the polls, Santorum reassured Republican voters that Specter would be a reliable vote for conservative issues. He also raised money, appeared in television advertisements and direct-mail pieces and blocked Toomey from getting help from the state GOP.

But this year it’s Specter who is lending his political skills to help Santorum, who is in the fight of his political life. Santorum will face State Treasurer Bob Casey, Jr. (D), an abortion opponent and son of a popular former governor, in November’s midterm election. Casey routed his opponents in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, and most polls show him leading Santorum.

But Specter is stepping in to help his GOP colleague.

“His reelection is my No. 1 priority this year,” Specter told The Hill.

The differences in age, style and political outlook between Santorum, the third-ranking Senate Republican, and Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, are not unique among same-state, same-party senators. There are similar disparities in Connecticut, between Democrats Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, and in Virginia, between Republicans George Allen and John Warner.

Specter, 76, is a centrist from Philadelphia and supports abortion rights. He is understated and gruff and displays a slightly ironic sense of humor. Santorum, 48, a firm opponent of abortion and gay marriage from the Pittsburgh area, is a more dynamic presence and fierce debater.

Despite their differences, they’ve figured out how to work together and help one another politically, especially this year.

Santorum will participate in a Judiciary Committee field hearing that Specter is holding in Philadelphia tomorrow to examine violence on college campuses; Santorum appeared at a similar field hearing that Specter held last year.

Earlier this month, Specter and Santorum teamed up to introduce legislation that would increase funding for stem-cell research, which polling has shown is popular with independent voters. The duo sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last year to keep a National Guard air base in Pennsylvania; the base remained open.

“They have not made this about ideology, but made the relationship about how to work together for Pennsylvania,” said John Brabender, Santorum’s media consultant. “They don’t let differences get in the way of getting things done.”

Mark Rodgers, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, said, “When it comes to representing interests of the state, Rick has put aside differences in other areas. He and Specter have enjoyed a collegial and cooperative relationship on appropriations and special projects.”

This is not the first time that Specter has aided Santorum. In 2000, Specter dispatched campaign operatives and raised money for Santorum when he faced Rep. Ron Klink (D-Pa.), a Democrat from western Pennsylvania who, like Santorum, opposed abortion.

Specter also has helped Santorum rake in campaign cash this cycle. He held two fundraisers last year in Washington, including one at his condominium, and another in Philadelphia. Specter said he has also written letters to potential donors.

Perhaps most important, Specter has leveraged his perch as a subcommittee chairman on the Appropriations Committee to deliver federal dollars to Pennsylvania to help Santorum.

“When I’m putting him first on earmarks, that shows that he’s the guy who’s got clout,” Specter said, adding that he helped Santorum secure a major job-training grant and that last year they jointly announced earmarks for defense companies in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

If Santorum eased conservatives’ angst about Specter in 2004, Republicans believe that Specter’s presence in Santorum’s campaign can help sway independent, liberal Republican voters in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“My job is to target the moderates and independents,” Specter said.

But political observers noted two key differences between Specter’s primary challenge and Santorum’s hurdles in the general election. First, the backdrop for the 2006 midterm is decidedly anti-incumbent, and Specter has less clout with centrist Republicans than Santorum had with conservatives.

“Because of the influences Santorum has in the conservative community, he was able to plead with conservatives to hang in with Specter,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “I don’t know how Specter inoculates Santorum other than to say, ‘He’s my guy.’ It’s more difficult.”

Democrats argue that Specter will have little impact on the race, citing polls that show Santorum losing support from both conservative and centrist Republican voters.

“Whatever Specter is doing doesn’t seem to be working, since Santorum has been losing support from both Republicans and independents for the last year,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.