President Bush turned a fund-raising visit to Pittsburgh Tuesday into a defacto campaign stop for Sen. Arlen Specter, praising the liberal-leaning Republican after a trip on Air Force One.
“I want to thank Arlen Specter, who is the state campaign co-chairman for Bush-Cheney ‘04,” Mr. Bush said to a room full of well-heeled supporters. “I look forward to working with him as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the United States Senate to make sure my judges get through and appointed.”
Mr. Specter is running against Rep. Patrick J. Toomey in the party’s primary. Although Mr. Toomey might be more in line with Mr. Bush’s conservative philosophy, a Toomey campaign aide said the president is simply “following policy” by supporting the incumbent for the Pennsylvania Senate seat.
“They told us that they weren’t going to say anything bad about us,” said the aide, who requested anonymity. “They said that they appreciate how we’ve worked well with the White House on many things, but their policy is their policy.”
The aide noted that the White House did not urge Mr. Toomey to give up his primary challenge.
Mr. Bush also has dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to Pennsylvania to campaign for Mr. Specter, 73, who currently has $10 million to help him win a fifth term compared with 42-year-old Mr. Toomey’s $2 million in campaign funds.
Mr. Specter, who also has gained the endorsement of fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, likely will add the nod of the party’s state committee, too, when it meets in late January.
All this high-powered help for Mr. Specter makes Mr. Toomey’s quest in the April primary a daunting one, said his campaign aides, but a win is not impossible.
“We’ve got a large group of grass-roots supporters that are organizing,” said Toomey spokesman Mark Dion. “We expect the party machinery to be behind the incumbent. This isn’t a case of endorsements winning an election. It will be decided by all of the state’s registered Republicans.”
Mr. Toomey’s campaign has accused Mr. Specter of abandoning the president and conservative principles on key votes — from lukewarm support for the president’s tax cuts, to votes against school vouchers, support for human-cloning research and a vote this year to weaken the ban on partial-birth abortion.
Specter spokesman Bill Reynolds said the president’s endorsement of Mr. Specter debunks that argument.
“For not being on the team, he sure takes a lot of trips in Air Force One with the president,” Mr. Reynolds said. “Senator Specter voted more with the president last year than Mr. Toomey did, so who is the one who is on the team?”
Nonetheless, primary voters have a history of causing trouble for Mr. Specter, throwing more than 30 percent of the vote to largely unknown Republicans in his past two races.
A Keystone Poll released two weeks ago showed Mr. Specter with a significant lead over Mr. Toomey — 49 percent to 18 percent — but Mr. Specter’s 42 percent job-approval rating might be a sign of vulnerability.
Pittsburgh-based Republican political consultant Bill Green said that if Mr. Toomey can tap into conservative frustration with Mr. Specter, the seat he has held since 1980 could be in trouble.