By Reid Wilson - 08/04/09 10:57 AM EDT
"In this next election, we Pennsylvanians will vote for a change in accountability to continue that new direction," Sestak told a packed house Tuesday morning.
Sestak blamed Washington for the nation's economic troubles, arguing that those in power missed an opportunity to solve the crisis.
"At best, some people were asleep at the switch. Those people who you sent to Washington to represent you, to look out for you, failed to do so and they must be held accountable."
Sestak said he is running to take advantage of the opportunity "to reclaim those core principles, particularly in Washington, D.C., [of] hard work, of honesty and accountability, until once again, principle triumphs over politics."
Following the morning appearance in Folsom, in Sestak's congressional district, he will hold media availabilities in Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Harrisburg and Scranton on Tuesday and Wednesday. Late Wednesday, Sestak will appear on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”
Sestak has attacked Specter for his history in the Republican Party, which the congressman has equated to standing side by side with former President George W. Bush. But Specter has shot back, accusing Sestak of being a "flagrant hypocrite" because Sestak has not always been a Democrat either.
Sestak served more than three decades in the U.S. Navy, attaining the rank of vice admiral, and he said he remained a registered independent because he believes in a nonpartisan military.
Meanwhile, Specter has also labeled his opponent "Joe no-show" for not voting in dozens of elections over the past two decades.
Specter's campaign did not immediately react to Sestak's announcement with a formal statement, though it did pass around comments from prominent Keystone Democrats offering support for the incumbent.
Both candidates will face challenges in the coming months. Specter must build relationships with his new party even as Sestak tries to connect the senator to former President Bush. Though Specter has a good start — 73 percent of Democrats view him favorably, while just 16 percent view him unfavorably, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll — he has angered some in his party with his refusal to back the Employee Free Choice Act, labor's leading priority in the 111th Congress.
Sestak faces the challenge of taking on an institution that is stacked decidedly against him. President Barack Obama was quick to embrace Specter after he defected, and Gov. Ed Rendell (D) — who once worked for Specter in the Philadelphia district attorney's office — is leading the Keystone State Democrats who have voiced support for their new Democratic colleague.
"While the Pennsylvania Democratic Party welcomes Congressman Sestak to the race, he has an uphill climb against Sen. Specter, the incumbent Democrat," said T.J. Rooney, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and another Specter backer.
Sen. Bob Casey Jr. and Reps. Chaka Fattah and Tim Holden, all Pennsylvania Democrats, have all signed on with Specter's campaign as well, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is backing the incumbent.
"Sen. Specter has emerged as a key player on the top issues that Democrats care most about right now," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) said in a statement provided to The Hill. "Over the past few months Sen. Specter has traveled Pennsylvania generating an impressive amount of rank-and-file support and I know he’ll continue to do so, which is why he’ll be very difficult to beat in either a primary or general election."
The two Democrats are in a race to face ex-Rep. Pat Toomey (R), the former congressman who nearly knocked off Specter in the 2004 GOP primary. And on Tuesday, Toomey, whose announcement that he would run again prompted Specter to bolt the Republican Party, sounded a similar message to Sestak's.
"Pennsylvania Democrats will make an important choice between Joe Sestak, a consistent liberal who really believes in his values, and Arlen Specter, a career political opportunist who believes in nothing but his own reelection," the Toomey campaign said in a statement.
Toomey, who ran to Specter's right in the 2004 race, has used the increasingly nasty Democratic infighting to his advantage. Facing only token opposition in the race for the Republican nomination, Toomey has taken the opportunity to soften his image as a hard-line conservative.
On Tuesday, Toomey became the first major Republican Senate candidate to come out in favor of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. In an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Toomey calls Sotomayor "somewhat left of center" but "an extremely capable and qualified jurist."