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could this be the end of snarlin' arlen?

as most of you know, four-term senator arlen specter is fighting for his life against representative pat toomey, a conservative pennsylvania republican.

local polls either have specter with a lead that extends just beyond the margin of error, or show a dead heat. in all cases, the polls have around 10% of the voters still undecided--an ominous figure for specter.

the easiest way to explain how a heretofore unknown could mount such a fierce challenge to a seat as well-established as specter's is the good ol' protest vote. pennsylvania republicans, a devoutly conservative lot, are sick to death of the middle-left specter's never-ending series of let-downs and betrayals. the last straw for many was the notoriously porky specter's decision to side with the democrats against president bush's proposed tax plan, single-handedly defying his constituents, his party, and his president on nothing less than bush's signature issue. on that day, republicans all over pennsylvania, myself included, said to themselves "never again."

but a protest vote is only half the story. the key to specter's electability is his appeal to pittsburgh and philadelphia democrats, to catholics, union members, and other key democratic constituencies clustered at the far ends of the state. not exactly the sort of thing to inspire his republican base, but then, specter's base has never exactly been republican. republicans simply happened to vote for him in the belief that, on balance, the party would be better off for having someone of his stature around. with toomey, republicans have a chance to actually vote for a candidate rather than a set of rationalizations.

pat toomey is a likeable, soft-spoken conservative who comes across as sincere and optimistic in interviews. he's unabashedly pro-life--a plus even among pennsylvania democrats (think bob casey)--a proud fiscal conservative, and committed to strong national defense. in short, he's said all the right things in all the right ways, and in so doing has captured the imagination of the party faithful. with the level of frustration directed at specter, good enough would have been more than good enough, but toomey has been great, and despite the fact that specter outspent him 3 to 1 in televised ads, toomey steadily gained supporters as the primary neared.

in response to what must have struck the incumbent’s camp as a stunning late charge, specter offered a series of negative ads joined by the common thread of toomey's supposed extremism: "pat toomey: he's not far right, he's far out." it's a telling strategy, for if specter had any hope of running as a conservative himself, would he have risked the backfire he's now reaping on tried-and-true democratic tactics that knowledgeable pennsylvania republicans couldn't help but resent? it will be a fitting epitaph to specter's career that when faced with a choice between running as a conservative and trying to color his conservative rival insane, he chose the latter.

perhaps more interesting still is how specter spent the positive half of his ad dollars. early on in the campaign, he'd tried on the slogan "courage, clout, conviction," where he portrayed himself as a national security crusader, influential member of the senate, and dedicated conservative. the first time i saw one of these ads, i could barely control my laughter. the spots ran for perhaps a month and i haven't heard "courage, clout, conviction" since. evidently the internal polls made it painfully clear that arlen specter had no hope of selling arlen specter, so the strategy was revised to let popular fellow senator rick santorum and the president do it for him.

has it worked? not in the slightest. savvy voters understand that bush and santorum are obliged to back the incumbent republican, and no one with half a brain could miss the glaring contrasts between specter's politics and those of his conservative endorsers. toomey himself has handled the situation with stoicism and more than a little grace, gently reminding voters that this is how the game is played, that it's nothing personal, that if he were the incumbent they would do the same for him.

which isn't to say that the ads aren't striking. one of the santorum versions offers a particularly gruesome spectacle. in it, he praises specter for being one "the key supporting the president's tax plan." in another, president bush hails specter for being an "independent voice." the president, it seems, is as much a hostage to specter as pennsylvania republicans.

the main focus of the bush/santorum ads--and of all republican support for specter--is his importance on The Hill. specter is on this committee, he's third in line for that chair, etc. the overall effect is to damn specter with faint praise, and it seems that the only way he can hope to appeal to the pennsylvania republican is to turn him into an arlen specter, to make him forget about his core beliefs and concentrate on the tactics of washington in-fighting instead. specter's famous willingness to do so is why he now finds himself in such desperate shape in the first place, and why these ads have been no more effective than any other.

the large chunk of undecided voters bodes well for toomey. it's not like these people don't know who arlen specter is. if they haven't made up their minds at this point, it's because they don't want to vote for specter but still aren't sure about his opponent. will toomey be able to defeat the democrat come november, for instance. (why not? santorum does.) traditionally, such voters climb into the booth, say "oh what the hell," and break heavily against the incumbent. toomey has got a real shot.

i'd say he has a real shot anyway. specter's supporters, republican and democrat alike, are a lethargic, lesser-of-two-evils bunch whereas toomey's are ready to walk barefoot over a pit of hot coals to vote for their guy. if the unseasonably cold, rainy weather here in PA depresses turnout, so much the better.

locdog thinks it's curtains for arlen specter