Rep. Joe Sestak trying to outrun Sen. Arlen Specter

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Rep. Joe Sestak needs a comb. His wavy, graying hair has been through a hectic morning, and the Pennsylvania Democrat is racing toward his third interview of the day, this time with ABC News.

“Nobody under 40 carries a comb,” he says. “See, watch this.”

Sestak, 57, looks at one of the young aides rushing ahead of him up an escalator in the Capitol Visitor Center: “Do you have a comb?”

The staffer answers nervously: “No, sir.”

Primped or not, Sestak’s life as a Senate candidate is a constant scramble to get his face on the air or his words in print, a frantic push to paint a portrait of himself for state voters -- and anyone else with the time to listen -- as he fights to get noticed. In challenging Sen. Arlen Specter, until recently a Republican, Sestak is taking on not only the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, but also the Democratic establishment in Washington and back home.

On this fall day, Sestak rushed from appearance to appearance, all the while navigating a thick legislative agenda and playing dad to a young daughter recovering from a brain tumor. By sunset, his schedule told the tale: C-SPAN, ABC News, MSNBC, Fox 20 News, WHYY Philadelphia, WILK in Scranton, the London Times and the Norristown Times Herald.

He says he never turns down an interview request.

“I need them to understand who I am and what I believe in,” Sestak says of the Pennsylvania electorate, which in May will decide the Democratic nomination for Senate.

Hidden behind his words is the obvious imprint of a candidate largely unknown beyond southeastern Pennsylvania: He must define himself for voters before his opponent does it for him.

Defining anything in a few words doesn’t come easily to Sestak. He responds to questions with long, meandering answers, peppered with references to his 31-year career in the Navy -- he reached the rank of vice admiral and retired as a rear admiral. He has an earnest, emotional way of speaking, often gesturing, moving to the edge of his chair and softening his voice.

On this day, his interviews run the gamut. He waxes on about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (he favors diplomatic engagement and beefed-up economic sanctions); the Obama administration’s missile defense strategy (he supports it); the possible troop buildup in Afghanistan (he backs the idea as long as there’s an exit strategy); and autism. An amendment he introduced to boost assistance for military families with autistic children passed this year -- adding to his 19 successful measures in the previous two years, he points out.

Another frequent area of discussion, healthcare, is the reason Sestak says he entered politics. He backs a government-run option to compete with private insurers, arguing that everyone should have access to the same level of care the military provided his daughter, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2005. Her cancer is in remission.

Sestak is, at times to the chagrin of his staff, unfailingly accommodating -- to the media, to lobbyists and to constituents. He boasts that his aides handled 10,000 constituent cases in his first two years in office.

Not everyone he hires can stand it. Sestak lost staff at a staggering rate during his first two years in office. He went through nearly half a dozen press secretaries alone in the first year. Chiefs of staff came and went almost as fast.

He asks aides to work six days a week, 12-plus hours a day. Staff salaries are among the lowest on Capitol Hill, according to congressional records. No one in Pennsylvania’s 19-member congressional delegation had a smaller payroll than Sestak in the 18-month period that ended June 30, records show, while only two members had larger staffs.

Chief of Staff Bibiana Boerio, who took over in February 2008, said that the office likes to hire recent college graduates in part because of the energy they bring to the job. She said they are paid in line with their experience.

Job applicants are given six reading and research assignments before their interviews. Among them is a review of a book by entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki, who espouses the belief that success comes in 80-hour work weeks.

“I try to let them know what the expectations are,” Sestak said. “We don’t try to measure ourselves by other offices.”

The money Sestak saves on staff salaries is in part devoted to constituent mailings and brochures highlighting his positions on issues. Sestak last year spent more on mail than anyone in the delegation.

His reputation as a demanding boss predates his time in Congress. He was relieved as a deputy chief of naval operations in 2005 for what Navy sources called “poor command climate,” an assessment Sestak disputes. He retired six months later. He said his departure had to do with Pentagon politics. His job at the end of his career involved providing an “alternative analysis” about the Navy’s infrastructure, and he’d recommended a leaner operation, which he said had upset others at the top.

Those who stick around Sestak’s congressional and district offices quickly learn that he likes employees who embrace his work ethic, immersing themselves completely in their jobs, mastering the details of legislation and following up with everyone who writes or calls the office or meets with the lawmaker. The reward is a quicker-than-usual path up the organizational ladder.

“He wanted us to dig deep in the substance of the issues,” recalled Clarence Tong, 27, who spent 19 months in Sestak’s office before leaving to get his master’s degree in public policy. “While he expects a lot, he gave me every opportunity to learn.”

The workaholic image is one Sestak is eager to portray, particularly in a contest against Specter, whose reputation as a tireless lawmaker is legendary on Capitol Hill.

“He is trying to make that point that he won’t be out-hustled, he won’t be outworked,” said Franklin & Marshall College political science professor G. Terry Madonna. “He is going at Specter’s historic strength by making it an endurance test.”