Sestak Torpedo Aimed at Specter: The Word on Grant Street

Grant Street is where politics is practiced in my hometown of Pittsburgh, so when I need to get my bearings on Pennsylvania politics—or politics in general—I call the people I know who work (or used to work) in the City-County Building or the Allegheny County Courthouse. With the Democratic primary fast approaching on May 18, the buzz is rising on Grant Street, a thoroughfare ruled by Democrats since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

County Executive Dan Onorato is miles ahead of his competitors for the gubernatorial nomination, so the focus is shifting to the increasingly vicious U.S. Senate primary. It's between two Philly-area Democrats: Sen. Arlen Specter (until last year a Republican) and Rep. Joe Sestak, who, before he won a House seat four years ago, was a Navy admiral.

The consensus: Sestak seems to be gaining ground, both in the polls and in the for-background-only opinion along Grant Street. No one seems to much like Sestak—they don't know him—but even though the Democratic establishment dutifully endorsed Specter (as did President Obama), their hearts don't seem to be in the Specter effort.

"Didn't Specter just say the other day that maybe he should have stayed a Republican?" one Grant Streeter asked me, as if to say, how can we ever trust a guy like that? In fact, Specter did, a while back, muse in a small-town press interview that perhaps he should've stayed in the GOP long enough to have tried to influence some Republicans to join him in supporting the Obama health-care bill.

In other words, the remark was the philosophical musing of an 80-year-old veteran who had seen it all, and was now in the Obama-Democratic corner for the duration.

But my buddy—pretty high up in the city's political pecking order—chose not to interpret it that way. "I think Arlen's act is wearing a little thin at this point," he added.

The convention wisdom has been that Specter—the ultimate survivor, a Depression-era product who came from Kansas to become a star in Philadelphia, and who has survived severe bouts of cancer, not to mention five earlier Senate races—would chew Sestak, a relative notice, to bits. A former prosecutor, Specter fired up the chain saw the other week. Sestak had been bragging about his Navy record, but Specter pointed out—in a very tough ad—that Sestak had, at one point, lost a star and been relieved of command.

It was a bold, characteristic—and maybe even desperate—attack on the highest-ranking military officer ever to serve in Congress, and one with an otherwise fine record. All the experts (especially in Philly) thought that this would blow a hole in Sestak's boat, especially after the former admiral made a hash of half-denials and garbled explanation, and launched his own ad in which a vet calls Specter a "liar." This issue took up most of last Saturday's one televised debate.

But the exchange doesn't seem to be sinking Sestak; just the opposite, if a new poll from Muhlenberg College is to be believed. It has Sestak trailing Specter by only 6 points.

Specter is going to have to pile up a huge margin in Philly—which is still possible, because he has such deep and ancient roots there. But he could get clobbered elsewhere, especially in western Pennsylvania, including much of Allegheny County.  Specter has never been that popular out west anyway.

He is seen as the incumbent in a year when that is a bad thing to be, and he is not automatically trusted by the rank-and-file Democrats he needs to turn out for him. In the new poll, Specter has a 58–31 favorable-unfavorable rating; Sestak's is 45–12, with a whopping 44 percent undecided. The numbers mean that Sestak is still not well known—which is why Specter is attacking full bore.

"We don’t know Sestak," another Grant Streeter told me, "but there is Arlen fatigue."

We'll soon know just how much.