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The tough old bird

A radio show on the likely Specter-Sestak race

I can't speak for other scribes, but I've always found talking (and talking and talking) to be far easier than writing. So I suppose that today I've taken the easy way out, by focusing on my gig as a guest on Philadelphia NPR.

For an hour this morning on "Radio Times," we kicked around the impending Pennsylvania Senate Democratic race, which is shaping up as a big national story. Newly-minted Democrat Arlen Specter, the tough old bird who could probably survive a nuclear blast by opening his umbrella, is likely to be challenged for the 2010 nomination by upstart Democratic congressman Joe Sestak, the tough ex-Navy rear admiral who seems blithely unconcerned that the entire party establishment has already marked him as roadkill.

Sestak wants to challenge Specter from the left, by reminding liberal primary voters that Specter, before switching sides in order to maximize his survival options, actually voted with George W. Bush 80 percent of the time. Sestak, again this week, reiterated his intention to run (although he has invoked the "family" loophole, suggesting that if he backs down in the end, it's only because his family insists.) And Specter appears to be taking the threat seriously; he's not just holding fundraisers, he even asked for money the other day at a health policy conference of medical equipment suppliers.

Anyway, during the radio show, I asked my fellow guest - Chris Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College - whether he agreed with my theory that a contested primary, while potentially divisive for the Democrats, would actually benefit the Obama legislative agenda, because Sestak would force Specter to lean leftward on crucial Senate votes and thus ratchet up his displays of newfound Democratic loyalty. (And tacking leftward in the primary wouldn't torpedo Specter's general election prospects - or Sestak's prospects, for that matter - because the Obama agenda is broadly popular in Pennsylvania, and because likely Republican candidate Pat Toomey is too conservative for the blue-trending electorate anyway.)

Borick did agree with my theory, but only up to a point. He believes that Sestak would help Obama and the Democrats "keep a leash" on Specter through the election season - but not beyond. He said that if Specter survives a primary, and beats a Republican challenger in November '10, he would return to the Senate as an 80-year-old independent player, freer than ever to confound his new Democratic allies, for years. True that. And besides, as I noted later, the guy is going to live forever.

The audio of the show is archived here.