Sen. Arlen Specter hasn't quite gotten used to being a Democrat.
"I support climate change," Specter told an Aug. 14 gathering at the Netroots Nation convention held in Pittsburgh last week. The crowd, made up of bloggers, activists and other progressives, began snickering. After all, many of them have long suspected Specter of merely blowing with the wind.
Specter isn't used to such treatment. As a moderate Republican in the Senate, he was often the first stop for Democrats looking for some bipartisan support. But having alienated many in his own party, he left the GOP earlier this year. Specter thus dodged a primary challenge from arch-conservative Pat Toomey ... but now faces a 2010 primary race as a Democrat with a new opponent, Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral and a Congressman from the eastern part of the state.
Specter has worked hard to endear himself to Democratic voters. At the Netroots town-hall meeting, Specter was asked what he'd done that would convince progressives to support him. "I'm out there fighting for health care," Specter answered. "No one else in the Democratic caucus is out there with four meetings."
Specter has certainly been on the frontlines on the battle for health-care reform. In recent weeks, he has faced off against angry, often misinformed citizens who have booed, hissed and shouted him down at town-hall meetings.
"One day, God will stand before you and judge you!" yelled one man in Lebanon, Pa., last week, according to the Associated Press.
Before the Netroots crowd, Specter asserted that he would be a staunch champion of President Barack Obama's policies. He also says his stance on issues like requiring that the Supreme Court be televised shows a touch of originality that progressives can get behind. He called the high court one of the most "opaque and unaccountable" institutions in the country.
Arlen Specter is trying. The question is whether voters believe in his sincerity enough to return him to office.
Time may be catching up to the five-term incumbent. In May, Specter was throttling the little-known Sestak, 54 percent to 11 percent. A Research 2000 poll released Aug. 14, however, shows that Specter's lead has been cut dramatically: Specter now leads Sestak by only 48 percent to 33 percent.
Sestak made an appearance of his own at Netroots Nation, where he was clearly the crowd favorite. In a straw poll conducted at the end of the event, Sestak beat up on Specter by a 48 percent to 10 percent margin. While Specter says the two men aren't far apart on issues like health care, Sestak criticized Specter's frequent shifts on the issue.
"Eight weeks ago ... he was opposed to a public option, but now if he says he's for it then I take him at his word," Sestak said. Still, he added, Specter had opposed President Bill Clinton's efforts to overhaul the health system in 1994. Sestak suggested that if Specter had backed Clinton's plan, he could have helped prevent 10 million Americans from losing their insurance in the years since. Being a leader, Sestak contended, means not just leading at a time of crisis, but taking action to "prevent crisis."
Despite the rough road so far, Specter seems more at ease in his role as Democratic Senator.
"As a Democrat I don't have to look over my right shoulder," Specter said. "And that's comforting."
- Sen. Arlen Specter, right, at Netroots Nation conference with moderators Susie Madrak and Ari Melber