CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Democrats in Washington are bent on "lurching the country to the left," Pat Toomey was saying, with their "serial bailouts" favoring big government over individual freedom and responsibility and, of course, the $787 billion stimulus and its "pig odor."
Murmurs of assent greeted the conservative former congressman as he built his case, but the crowd of 250 at the Franklin County Republican Party's annual spring dinner burst into applause only when he called out Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) as the Democrats' chief enabler.
"The fact is, Arlen Specter made this happen," said Toomey, president of the national limited-government activist group Club for Growth. "I think a Republican senator from Pennsylvania ought to govern based on the conservative ideas at the heart of the Republican Party, and that's why - Arlen, are you listening? - it is very likely that I will become a candidate for the United States Senate."
Toomey came within 17,000 votes of beating Specter in the 2004 Republican primary, and he had been laying the groundwork for a campaign for governor next year - until Specter provided one of only three Republican votes for President Obama's stimulus bill, and landed back in trouble with his party's right wing. Then Toomey changed his goal.
In his first Pennsylvania appearance since he announced March 7 that he would likely run again for Senate, Toomey previewed a message of unfettered capitalism, faith, and family Thursday night as keynote speaker to the most active Republicans in one of the state's reddest counties. Franklin County gave 66 percent of its vote to Sen. John McCain in November, while Democrat Obama was carrying Pennsylvania by more than 10 points overall.
Instead of spending on government programs and infrastructure projects to spur the economy, Toomey believes in deep cuts in the corporate and capital-gains tax rates and suspension of a regulation that makes it harder for banks to lend money.
"For the money they spent on the stimulus bill, you could have done amazing things on the tax front," Toomey, 47, said in an interview. ". . . You could have suspended payroll taxes entirely for an extended period, so that every single worker would have more cash in his pocket."
With about a quarter-million Pennsylvania Republicans having switched their registration to Democratic in the last two years, analysts say the GOP primary electorate is smaller and more conservative than it was when Specter won his fifth term in 2004. That augurs well for Toomey, who also is to Specter's right on abortion and other social issues.
But if Toomey, who has experience in banking, wins the nomination next spring, it is an open question how his laissez-faire economic philosophy would play amid the populist outrage at Wall Street for destabilizing the economy. In addition, polls show that most Americans want the government to help.
Specter usually does not comment about potential opponents, but earlier this month he took a shot at Toomey's philosophy on a Wilkes-Barre talk-radio station, saying, "Well, he's been totally in favor of deregulation, letting Wall Street run its own affairs, which has been a tremendous factor in bringing us into this current mess."
Democratic strategists believe that Specter, who has inroads with some of the party's key constituencies, such as organized labor, would be tougher to beat in November 2010 than Toomey.
"He's out of step," David Dunphy, a Democratic political consultant in Philadelphia, said of Toomey. "Republicans seem intent on moving to the right, but to win elections in Pennsylvania they have to reach beyond the base, to exactly those voters who abandoned them over the last two [election] cycles."
Toomey disputes the notion that he is at odds with the political zeitgeist, saying that support for the Obama administration's program in polls "depends on the question you ask and how you ask it." As for electability, Toomey cited his own history as a congressman from the Lehigh Valley.
"The Democratic candidate has carried the 15th Congressional District of Pennsylvania in the last five presidential elections - and yet during the middle of that period I won that seat, and was reelected twice by increasing margins," Toomey said in the interview. "A message about fiscal discipline and reducing government spending and encouraging free enterprise - I think that's going to resonate."
It certainly did inside the Family Traditions Lighthouse, site of Thursday's GOP dinner.
In 2004, Specter carried Franklin County in his match with Toomey, 55 percent to 45 percent, but several attendees at the dinner said the stimulus vote had eroded the incumbent's standing in the area.
"I think Sen. Specter has always been liked here, but that vote changed things just like that," said Lowell E. Carey Jr., who owns a photography studio downtown. "People are mad. This is a blue-collar, conservative area. People work hard for what they've got."
County GOP chairman Jim Taylor said he invited Toomey to speak several months ago, well before the stimulus vote, and was delighted at the timing of the visit.
"I figured Specter would do something to make people mad again," Taylor said. "Every three months he does something outrageous."
But Specter, 79, also visits each of the state's 67 counties regularly, distributing federal grants that are not exactly unpopular in Pennsylvania. His roots could be his strength.
While a flood of votes in Specter's Southeastern Pennsylvania base saved him last time, he also carried about 30 rural counties against Toomey.
"Not all conservatives hate the guy," said pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "He knows the state. And nobody campaigns harder."
In 2004, though, Sen. Rick Santorum and President George W. Bush, who was still popular among Republican primary voters, urged conservatives to back Specter. He cannot count on such help anymore. On the other hand, antiabortion activist Peg Luksik said last week that she, too, would challenge him; she could split the anti-Specter vote with Toomey, if he runs.
It is 14 months until the GOP primary, and the outcome is likely to hinge on the health of the economy then, and how voters perceive it. Specter maintains he did the right thing to prevent a meltdown, while Toomey is convinced the stimulus and bailout programs will not work.
"That's the acid test," Madonna said.