GOP defector Specter faces challenge from his new party

If Sen. Arlen Specter defected from the GOP to avoid a tough primary fight, he failed: The highest-ranking military veteran to serve in Congress will announce today that he is seeking Pennsylvania's Democratic senatorial nomination.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a two-term lawmaker and former Navy vice admiral, will declare his candidacy during a two-day tour around the state, culminating Wednesday with an appearance on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report."

The announcement leaves Specter in a spot eerily similar to the one he escaped in April, when he withdrew from the Republican Party with promises of support by President Obama. On the Republican side, he would have faced Pat Toomey, a staunch fiscal conservative beloved by party activists. In Sestak, Specter faces a darling of Democratic activists.

Sestak, 57, spent 31 years in the Navy before unseating 10-term Republican Curt Weldon in 2006. He was easily reelected last year and has amassed $4.3 million to challenge Specter.

But he has little statewide name recognition, and the party establishment supports Specter.

Obama's support will be crucial. He has already helped Specter raise money, but it's unclear how much the president will campaign for him.

"How much does he come in and look like he is putting his neck on the line?" said political scientist Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "If he goes all out for Arlen Specter and Specter still loses . . . there's some political credibility on the line for Obama."

Specter campaign manager Christopher Nicholas said the senator had always anticipated a primary race: "The news here would be if there was not a primary."

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jdrobnyk@tribune.com

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