Since switching parties in 2009, Sen. Arlen Specter seemed to hold all the keys to winning his first Democratic Party nomination: the blessing of President Obama and Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, financial support from his new team and a commanding lead in polls.
But one week before next Tuesday’s primary, two polls show Rep. Joe Sestak opening a lead on Mr. Specter, who once had the support of more than 50 percent of Democratic voters.
Also, on Monday, Mr. Specter found himself defending his vote last year against Elena Kagan’s confirmation to solicitor general as President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court.
Mr. Sestak said he expects Mr. Specter “may backtrack from his earlier vote on Ms. Kagan this week in order to help himself in the upcoming primary election, but the people of Pennsylvania have no way of knowing where he will stand after May 18.”
In response, Mr. Specter scrambled to frame his previous opposition.
“I voted against her for solicitor general because she wouldn’t answer basic questions about her standards for handling that job,” he said in a statement.
“It is a distinctly different position than that of a Supreme Court justice. I have an open mind about her nomination and hope she will address important questions related to her position on matters such as executive power, warrantless wiretapping, a woman’s right to choose, voting rights and congressional power.”
The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone poll of likely Democratic primary voters has Mr. Sestak up 47 percent to 42 percent, with 8 percent undecided. Mr. Sestak is holding a similar margin in a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call tracking poll.
Is Mr. Specter, 80, about to join Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah as the latest victim of 2010’s backlash against “moderate” candidates? In February, the five-term Republican senator held a 51 percent to 36 percent lead over Mr. Sestak.
Mr. Sestak, a two-term congressman and a former admiral running as “the real Democrat,” has steadily closed the gap and last week edged into the lead for the first time.
The 58-year-old former vice admiral, who plowed into the race without the support of the state or national Democratic Party establishment, seems to be running a more nimble campaign.
Taking a page out of the Marco Rubio playbook in Florida, Mr. Sestak’s campaign is showing ads that prominently feature a 2004 campaign trail photo of Mr. Specter and President Bush — waving, arm in arm.
Mr. Sestak also used the endorsement of a veterans group last week to fire back at Mr. Specter, who had questioned the former career military man’s service in his ads. Those ads seem to have backfired on Mr. Specter, with critics accusing the incumbent of “Swiftboating” Mr. Sestak, the highest-ranking military veteran ever elected to Congress.
Democrats in the Rasmussen poll who said Mr. Specter had gone negative outnumber 4-to-1 those who saw Mr. Sestak’s ads as negative — 41 percent to 10 percent.
The “Swiftboat” counterattack even drew Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry into the fight Monday, with the 2004 Democratic Party presidential nominee weighing in on behalf of his Senate colleague Mr. Specter.
“I’ve been reluctant to get involved in a primary between friends, and even more reluctant to be drawn into arbitrating the definition of the term ‘Swiftboating,’” Mr. Kerry said in releasing his endorsement of Mr. Specter. “I’d like to see us get back to a better place in politics where the word ‘Swiftboating’ is retired from the political dictionary.”
Mr. Kerry’s presidential campaign was knocked off track by veterans who questioned his service aboard a Vietnam War swiftboat.
The primary contest winner still faces an uphill battle to win November’s general election: In an April Rasmussen poll, likely Republican candidate Pat Toomey held double-digit leads over both Mr. Specter and Mr. Sestak.