In the face of a White House denial, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak stuck to his story yesterday that the Obama administration offered him a "high-ranking" government post if he would not run against U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic primary.
A White House official "vociferously" denied his account yesterday as Sestak insisted on national television that he had told the truth, but declined for a second day to divulge details.
"I was asked a direct question . . . and I answered it honestly," Sestak said in a Fox News interview. "There's nothing more to go into."
Sestak made his startling claim Thursday during the taping of Comcast Network's Larry Kane: Voice of Reason, a public affairs show televised on Sunday evenings.
"Were you ever offered a federal job to get out of this race?" Kane asked near the end of the 30-minute interview.
"Yes," Sestak answered.
"Was it Navy secretary?" Kane asked.
"No comment," Sestak replied.
In response to follow-up questions from the host, Sestak said the job was offered by the White House. He also nodded when asked if the offer was for a high-ranking post.
President Obama and other leading Democrats are supporting Specter, a five-term incumbent who switched from the Republican Party last spring. Some Democrats, including Gov. Rendell and state party Chairman T.J. Rooney, have publicly urged Sestak to spare the party an expensive primary fight.
After the taping, which was attended by an Inquirer reporter, Sestak declined to answer questions about the alleged offer from the White House.
"I'm not going to say who or how and what was offered," Sestak told The Inquirer on Thursday. "I don't feel it's appropriate."
Sestak, a retired admiral, said he was approached in July. He announced his challenge in August.
The White House official would not elaborate on the statement, given under condition of anonymity, that Sestak's account was false.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Sestak, in a separate interview Thursday about White House pressure, said, "There has been some indirect means in which they were trying to offer things if I got out."
Sestak's charge comes as he is working to overtake Specter, who leads him by an average of 12 points in multiple public polls taken since last May. Specter also has a cash advantage of about $3 million, but Sestak is counting on voter frustration with Washington to fuel an upset.
Some analysts said that Sestak's disclosure was convenient, a reinforcement of his preferred image of independence, especially since he would not answer questions.
"Affixing motives is tricky business, but to me, it is hard not to see it as part of candidate packaging," said Christopher Borick, pollster at Muhlenberg College. "Why else do you say it?"
Specter's campaign was more blunt. "Congressman Sestak's continuing odd behavior raises serious questions about his career," campaign manager Christopher Nicholas said. He noted that Sestak also has disputed a 2005 Navy Times report saying he had been forced out because of poor morale in his command.
"So Sestak wants us to believe only he's right, and the Navy and the White House are incorrect?" Nicholas said.
Whatever happened in this case, the Obama White House has been accused of meddling in other Democratic primaries. Aides reportedly tried to stop New York Gov. David Paterson from seeking reelection to clear the path for the administration's preferred candidate, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
In September, the Denver Post, citing anonymous Democratic sources, reported that White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina had suggested to candidate Andrew Romanoff that he could get an administration job - a post at the foreign-aid agency USAID was mentioned - if he were to drop his challenge to Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett. The White House denied that there was an offer, and Romanoff, a former speaker of the state House, is still in the race.
"It's difficult to see it as a mere coincidence," said Brian Walsh, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "This is not only Chicago-style politics at its worst, but it's precisely the type of politics that . . . Obama pledged would never take place in his White House."