ARLEN SPECTER, whatever else he's full of, remains endowed with plenty of old-fashioned piss and vinegar, and not just when the cameras are on.

Set aside his using Saturday night's one and only Democratic debate to reprove prosecutorial skills and passion for competition. He also reclaimed the nickname "Snarlin' Arlen."

Right after the debate, still at his lectern, Specter snapped at his Senate challenger: "Do you want to continue this?" I heard him say "fisticuffs" and thought there'd be some action. But he then rendered an unceremonious, wave-of-the-hand, tight-jawed dismissal and, boom, he's out the door.

This is after, at 80, he outpunched his 22-years-younger, lesser-known opponent, who needed to come out smokin' but who henceforth should be remembered as Smilin' Joe Sestak.

While moderating their hourlong TV encounter at WTXF Fox 29, I wondered why Sestak kept smiling at Arlen's in-your-face aggression. The retired admiral seemed content to just, well, take on water. I'm not sure how it came across on television, and I understand that such debates rarely change made-up minds, but from where I stood and from what I saw, Specter still has it and Sestak didn't bring it.

Behind-the-scenes, Sestak was antsy before the debate. Either that, or he commonly re-asks questions. He kept asking which camera was his. And about the format, and even just minutes to air, who got the first question and the final statement.

And he whined. Just before air, he pointed to Specter as Arlen arranged some cards with writing on them atop his own lectern, and said: "He has notes."

Arlen barked: "There's no prohibition against notes."

Sestak looked to me. I looked toward debate sponsor Richard Wyckoff, of the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters, who said Arlen was right. At a post-debate media session, Sestak again claimed that the debate "rules" said no notes. But yesterday, I dug out the original Jan. 14 invitation and format. It had no prohibition against notes, only against "exhibits or visuals."

To his credit, Sestak later called the notes thing no big deal, adding: "There's bigger things afoot than that."

There sure should have been.

Yes, Sestak used the format to his advantage. He avoided Specter's demand of an apology for calling Specter a liar (a Specter ad says Sestak was relieved of duty for creating a "poor command climate;" a Sestak ad says Specter's lying), and to duck Specter's repeated call for Sestak to release his service records.

But Sestak should have had notes to remind him to jackhammer Specter over becoming a Democrat after saying he would not, or voting for Sarah Palin, or seeking and clinging to an endorsement from then-Sen. Rick Santorum.

Seems to me real Democrats, the kind who vote in primaries, don't take kindly to Palin, Santorum or their pals. Challengers need to be more aggressive than incumbents. Sestak was not.

I got lots of post-debate e-mail.

One from a friend and lifelong liberal, saying he put up a Sestak yard sign Saturday morning and took it down Saturday night. One from an elected official and Sestak supporter, asking: "What is Sestak's problem?" And one noting that Sestak's saying the person in public life he most admires is former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn won't sit well with lots of liberals: Nunn led Senate opposition to gays in the military in 1993.

And, look, I understand that there's more to this race than what just happened in a Philly TV studio, or impressions of one-time performances. But politics, rightly or wrongly, is about winning elections.

Democratic voters need to decide who best represents their party's chances in a hotly contested, Republican-leaning general election this fall.

Their decision May 18 could come down to a question of how they want their candidate: snarlin' or smilin'.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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