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The Elephant in the Room: Brace yourself for El Specter

His political conversion has roiled the campaign waters in Pennsylvania.

Arlen Specter's grand return to the Democratic Party has rocked both political parties in Pennsylvania. Call it the "El Specter" effect. As El Nino raises global temperatures, El Specter has warmed up Pennsylvania's political climate.

On the surface, it might have seemed that Specter's exit from the Republican primary simply crowned Pat Toomey the GOP nominee and Arlen the Democratic standard-bearer. But not so. At least, not so fast.

First, El Specter put so-called moderate Republicans in a red-hot lather. As is their habit, they're certain no conservative can win in Pennsylvania. So they set out in search of a gray knight to ride to their rescue (gray because moderates don't like to see things in black and white).

Enter El Specter's first victim, Tom Ridge. From Erie to Philadelphia, the former governor was courted to run as the moderate Republican - even though his gubernatorial record was solidly conservative on every issue except abortion. (For many, "moderate" is simply code for "pro-choice.")

To my surprise, Ridge seriously considered entering what would have been a bruising primary contest against Toomey and an equally challenging race against Specter. But in the end, his personal desire to take out Specter - let's just say they've never been close - was no match for the prospect of life as a 65-year-old freshman member of a small minority on Capitol Hill.

Then there's El Specter's second casualty, former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan. No political figure was more burned by Specter's switch.

Meehan managed Specter's 1992 campaign, and the two have remained friends over the years. Specter also recommended Meehan for U.S. attorney for the Southeastern District of Pennsylvania. But then, as a senator, I did, too. Meehan's two successful terms as Delaware County district attorney made him an easy choice.

Now Meehan is running for governor. I fear, however, that the El Specter effect has taken some of the wind out of his sails. Much as Capt. Jack Sparrow would, Team Meehan may have to request a parley about the possibility of a Tom Corbett-Pat Meehan ticket before it's too late. (Full disclosure: Members of Team Santorum are in both the Meehan and Corbett camps.)

While we are plying the nautical themes, another person swept up in El Specter is former Vice Admiral Joe Sestak. I suggested here a month ago that the Democratic congressman from Delaware County was on a collision course with the USS Specter. Now Sestak says he intends to run. Damn the torpedoes.

Let's get back to Meehan. He lives in Sestak's congressional district, and no one is in a better position to win that seat.

Democratic State Rep. Bryan Lentz may disagree with that analysis, though. Lentz has formed an exploratory committee but hasn't formally announced a run for Sestak's congressional seat.

And why hasn't Meehan jumped into this race? Because few in Delaware County believe Sestak is serious about running against Specter. Most see Sestak's move as mere positioning. The idea is that President Obama and Gov. Rendell, who have declared support for Specter, will rush in with a host of political goodies to strengthen Sestak for some future run.

But I still think Sestak will run for Senate. Why? Because I think he believes he can win a Democratic primary. And I believe he can, too.

Specter may have tremendous statewide name recognition. That's helped him in early polls against the unknown Sestak. But the core of the Democratic Party - the 30 to 40 percent who show up on primary-election day - has never voted for Specter and doesn't much like Republicans.

For the next year, Sestak is going to remind Democrats all about Specter and his old Republican chums. I suspect you will be seeing Arlen with me and former President Bush on TV a time or two.

Finally, there is Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach. Say Pat Meehan bows out of the governor's race. This would help Gerlach big-time, because he would become the only eastern Pennsylvania candidate running for governor. The Chester County congressman's biggest problem is that his supporters in the Philadelphia suburbs want him to run for reelection. They fear Republicans would lose the congressional seat without him.

The El Specter winds show no sign of weakening. Hope you enjoy the heat.