INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

LANCASTER - When U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter switched from a Republican to a Democrat last year, some Democratic loyalists in Pennsylvania said hell would freeze over before they'd embrace an old foe they had been battling in statewide elections for 30 years.

Yesterday, amid the deep freeze and howling winds of the worst winter storm in years, the Democratic State Committee met in a snowbound hotel in Amish country to consider endorsements in this year's races for the U.S. Senate, governor, and lieutenant governor.

Despite the reservations of some party members, who challenged him for what they considered pro-Republican sins of the past, Specter, of Philadelphia, beat U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, of Delaware County, gaining the two-thirds majority required for endorsement by the party rules.

With chants of "Arlen! Arlen! Arlen!" from some of his supporters, Specter, who will turn 80 on Friday, practically bounded to a microphone in front of several hundred Democrats at the Lancaster Host Resort.

"I have been involved in many, many elections, but never one quite as thrilling as this," he said. "It almost feels like a presidential nominating convention."

In other action, none of the five longtime, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats who want to be governor could muster the two-thirds majority required for the party's nod in the May 18 primary, although state Auditor General Jack Wagner got the most support.

On the day, the only candidate who received more support than Specter was Jonathan Saidel, the former Philadelphia city controller, who easily won endorsement for lieutenant governor over former Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner, who is from the Pittsburgh area.

Saidel promised the 302 voting delegates and 100 or so party observers that top Democrats would win in Pennsylvania in November.

"We will have as our nominee the next governor of Pennsylvania," he predicted.

But the identity of the nominee for governor is a long way from being determined.

Wagner, who had been meeting party leaders among the back roads and veterans halls of Pennsylvania for months, received the majority of votes with 153 on the second and final ballot to 76 for his closest rival, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. Wagner won more than two-thirds of the 67 counties, dominating the smaller ones, but the county-by-county votes were weighted according to Democratic criteria.

Wagner called it a victory.

"I'm obviously very proud of the support," he said. "The majority of votes - over 50 percent - that is a strong vote total, in my opinion."

Onorato, who saw in advance that he couldn't win, claimed a victory in preventing Wagner from winning.

"This is a big boost for us today. This is a big win for us," he said. "The state committee has made it clear they're not going to endorse anybody. It's wide open for me."

Onorato said that with his huge advantage in campaign money - nearly 10 times what any other Democrat had Dec. 31 - he was in the strongest position to win in May.

Wagner and Onorato are both Pittsburghers. Their home county was split, with 26 votes for Onorato and 15 for Wagner. In other southwestern counties, Wagner more than made up the difference.

The biggest surprise of the weekend was that Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, who had asked for support from delegates as late as Friday night, did not enter his name in the endorsement process. Doherty disappeared before the endorsement meeting.

A spokesman for Doherty said later that the candidate remained "100 percent committed" to running for governor.

In the endorsement vote, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, with overwhelming backing from his home city of Philadelphia, came in third with 48 votes.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, who had claimed the mantle of Southeastern Pennsylvania's favorite son, likely would have been third if Williams hadn't entered the race just days earlier. But with Philadelphia for Williams and Bucks County backing Onorato, Hoeffel gained majority support in just two Philadelphia-area counties - Montgomery and Bucks.

He was eliminated from contention on the first ballot.

In the Senate battle, Specter won endorsement with 77 percent of the votes.

He drove hard for the prize, with a vote-counting operation that worked well into the night Friday. The Specter campaign had paid to bus in 35 supporters from Pittsburgh, and dozens of others in vans from Philadelphia and northeastern Pennsylvania.

Specter received overwhelming votes from the large urban county delegations, including Philadelphia and Allegheny, but it was the single vote from Warren County, in the rural Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, that put him over the top, setting off several minutes of cheering.

"I'm very proud to be received by the party of my roots . . . and very proud to have supported the values of the Democratic Party as an independent voice in the Senate for 30 years," said Specter, who was a Democrat until after winning election as Philadelphia district attorney on the GOP ticket in 1965.

Sestak, a former Navy admiral who is in his second House term, watched from the back of the hall and then retreated to his hotel room, emerging in jeans and a light-green flight jacket from his onetime flagship, the aircraft carrier George Washington.

"This is an insider group here . . . and you saw the machinations of the insiders," Sestak said. "The people are fed up with deal-making. They want a change."

Sestak said he had never expected the endorsement, and looked forward to continuing to make his case to a broader primary electorate. "This is going to be a good fight, one that has to be done." He said Specter, with his long record of Republican votes and positions, was an "albatross that's going to bring defeat."

In response, Specter dismissed Sestak's critique of the party gathering as "the same old singsong" and off-base. "These are grassroots people, not insiders. These people don't come from the Beltway," he said. "They're from the heartland of Pennsylvania."