Obama Made Arlen Specter Big Promises for Switching Parties. Now, Specter Wants Him To Pay Up

Barack Obama and Ed Rendell were delighted when they convinced Sen. Arlen Specter to switch parties earlier this year. But now that coup falls into the category of "be careful what you wish for," because the president and the governor of Pennyslvania have a problem on their hands: Arlen Specter. Here's the problem: Specter is up for reelection next year, and he was promised the full campaign backing of Obama and Rendell—not just in the general election but in the primary next May, if there was one. Well, there is one, and it is shaping up as a fierce one, against Rep. Joe Sestak, who represents the Philly suburbs. Specter, a notoriously tough and nasty campaigner, will expect his two big backers to support him to the hilt. And Specter, a 79-year-old cancer survivor with enough fortitude for the three of them, has leverage: he's the "60th vote" in the Senate. Read one way, Specter has no choice but to support Obama down the line; read another, Specter has the power, should things get ugly, to snarl the president's legislative agenda.

The word in my hometown of Pittsburgh is that Rendell, a devoted sports fan, would love to be baseball commissioner when he leaves public office next year. So perhaps it's appropriate that his big political challenge these days is dealing with the intraleague playoff between Specter and Sestak. It's a battle Rendell tried unsuccessfully to head off. Right now, Specter leads Sestak in most polls, but it hasn't gone unnoticed among Democrats that Sestak holds his own against the likely GOP candidate, Pat Toomey, in many polls—something that could no doubt affect the primary. Sestak, a retired admiral with degrees from the Naval Academy and Harvard, is raising money and garnering lots of attention in the same netroots that launched Obama. He was recently endorsed by Ned Lamont, the wealthy Connecticut businessman and former darling of the netroots, who ran an unsuccessful but very tough race against Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2006. Lamont is not the kind of guy who will ring a lot of bells in blue-collar Pennsylvania (he's not much of a bowler, he admitted to me) but he does have connection to antiwar online donors and activists who allowed his own campaign to mount a serious challenge to another longtime incumbent. "Joe Sestak's got guts," Lamont told me. "We don't need 3-year-incumbents, we need people who aren't professional politicians."

Specter, a former prosecutor famous for his questioning of Anita Hill, will run a furiously negative campaign. He's already called Sestak a "hypocrite" for having registered as a Democrat only in recent years (after he left the Navy in 2005). Sestak, for his part, already has showed his willingness to fight by disregarding pleas from both Rendell and Obama not to run. He's careful to pay homage to both of Specter's patrons. "I understand and don't begrudge where Ed is coming from," Sestak told me. "I expect him to be standing beside me when we take on the Republicans next fall. And as for the president, I understand that he had to make a tactical decision about the Senate. But I think he would agree that audacity is important." One other thing: Sestak's campaign adviser is Doc Sweitzer, among whose early clients was none other than Rendell. So we already know who the peacemaker will be if Sestak wins the primary.