GOP’s Philosophical Rift Evident in Pennsylvania

Times Staff Writer

While President Bush’s reelection bid has inspired impressive Republican unity around the country, a GOP family feud in a crucial state could hurt him politically and harm the party’s chances of retaining its Senate majority.

The chasm between Republican moderates and conservatives that Bush has labored to bridge throughout his presidency has been exposed in Pennsylvania in a contentious GOP Senate primary. The contest pits incumbent Arlen Specter, who is seeking a fifth term, against Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, who has run a surprisingly strong campaign and could score an upset in the state’s April 27 primary.

The fight has drawn national attention -- and will be spotlighted Monday when Bush campaigns for Specter in Pittsburgh -- because it is seen as a test of strength between competing visions of the Republican Party.


Specter, 74, is a vanishing breed of Republican -- a pragmatic, “Rockefeller Republican” who is a supporter of abortion rights, sympathetic to organized labor and an unabashed advocate of government spending to help his state and address social ills. He believes that an ideology that is too rigid narrows the reach of the GOP and polarizes the country.

“The center is important,” Specter said recently after a spirited campaign pitch to business leaders in Philadelphia. “You can’t function if you are defined by the extremes on both sides.”

Toomey, 42, is the prototype of a younger, post-Reagan generation of Republicans who are dedicated to cutting taxes, limiting government spending and ending abortion. He believes the party owes it to voters to stand for a clear, unwavering ideology.

“It is important to ask the question: How will this party govern?” Toomey said in an interview. “Is it just about being in power or about advocating principles?”

The two men personify GOP camps that have been at odds for decades. But the rivalry has new urgency now that Republicans control Congress and the White House -- and are hoping to retain that power.

The party’s philosophic tensions have been obscured by the absence of a primary challenge to Bush. But the president has been unable to paper over fault lines opened by his vast expansion of Medicare, the growth of government spending and other policies that have angered many conservatives.

The Specter-Toomey fight is a cautionary tale for Bush, a reminder of the balancing act he has to perfect to win reelection. He needs to generate enthusiasm among the kind of conservatives represented by Toomey. But in a swing state such as Pennsylvania -- where Democrats narrowly outnumber Republicans -- Bush cannot afford to alienate the centrist Republicans and Democrats attracted to Specter. That’s why some analysts argue that Bush was wise to endorse Specter and would have a harder time winning Pennsylvania if Toomey was on the ticket.

“Bush and Specter are joined at the hip,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Millersville University, near Lancaster, Pa. And as Republicans strive to maintain or expand their 51 seats in the 100-member Senate, this is an unwelcome fight. A Toomey victory in the primary, some analysts say, should boost the general-election prospects of the expected Democratic Senate nominee, Rep. Joseph M. Hoeffel.

“The truth is, if Toomey wins this nomination, this seat is a lot more difficult for Republicans to hold,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Still, for conservative activists concerned about the party’s direction, the primary fight is about something even bigger than control of the Senate: It is about the soul of the party.

“We see this as one of the most important races of this entire campaign season,” John Berthoud, head of the National Taxpayers Union, said at a Toomey rally in Philadelphia last week.

Toomey, whose House district is centered in Allentown, Pa., seems to be landing some punches. He has narrowed Specter’s once-commanding lead in the polls to a single-digit margin in some recent surveys.

Specter has infuriated more conservative Republicans over the years by blocking President Reagan’s nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, refusing to vote for the impeachment of President Clinton and joining with other centrists in efforts to scale back Bush’s tax cuts. Backing Toomey is a phalanx of conservative heavyweights who include Bork, former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes and commentator Paul Weyrich.

Toomey also is a marquee candidate for the Club for Growth, an anti-tax political group that finances primary challenges to Republicans it considers insufficiently conservative. The group hopes that by spending $1 million for anti-Specter ads -- and urging its members to contribute to Toomey -- it will at least intimidate other centrist Republicans into moving to the right.

“Even if Toomey loses, this has really sent a message pretty loud and clear to moderate Republicans in the Senate: We are watching them,” said Stephen Moore, Club for Growth president.

Specter’s supporters have fought back. The Main Street Individual Fund, a group of self-described Republican moderates, recently put about $200,000 into an effort to help Specter with television ads and voter registration. But Specter’s strong card is support from the Bush administration, and he plays it often. He recounts stories about flying with Bush on Air Force One. He tells voters Bush is more likely to win Pennsylvania if Toomey is not on the ticket. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow made two appearances with Specter in the Philadelphia area Thursday.

“I’m proud to call him my friend and so is the president,” Snow said at a packed meeting with the Chester County Chamber of Commerce.

For all Specter’s history of diverging from the party line, the administration still views him as a solid supporter. He voted for the final versions of all of Bush’s tax cut bills and supported the president on Iraq, the ban on the procedure some call partial-birth abortion and the Medicare prescription drug measure.

“He has been a loyal vote for Bush on everything that matters,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

The stakes in Pennsylvania are high for Bush because it could be crucial to his reelection. And the president and his political aides clearly have targeted the state and its 21 electoral votes. Since narrowly losing Pennsylvania to Democrat Al Gore in 2000, he has visited the state 26 times since he became president -- more than any other swing state.

Specter argues that his strength in pivotal Philadelphia suburbs could help Bush win votes in an area he lost in 2000 -- votes that could move the state into the president’s column.

Along with Bush’s backing, Specter hopes to benefit from the clout he has accumulated in Congress. First elected to the Senate in 1980, he is in line to be Judiciary Committee chairman next year. He is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. He has channeled billions of federal dollars to the state for road repair, cancer research and more. His campaign slogan: “Courage, Clout, Conviction.”

But for all that, Specter has always been vulnerable to a challenge from the right, largely because he supports abortion rights in a heavily Catholic, socially conservative state. Though Pennsylvania has a history of electing centrist Republicans, such as former Gov. Tom Ridge and the late Sen. John Heinz, that is changing.

The state’s GOP -- like the national party -- has been increasingly influenced by more ideological conservatives. A sign of that shift came in 1994 when Republican Rick Santorum, a hero of the religious right and the anti-abortion movement, first won Pennsylvania’s other Senate seat.

Specter’s gruff personality also could work against him; his nickname is “Snarlin’ Arlen.”

Said pollster Madonna: “The words ‘beloved’ and ‘Specter’ will never appear in the same sentence.”

Toomey’s campaign has focused not on personality but the contrasts between his record and Specter’s. For instance, Toomey was a leader of last year’s conservative revolt against the Medicare bill, which he argued was too expensive and did too little to reform the program.

“I represent the Republican wing of the Republican Party,” he likes to say.