2009-06-04 / Features

Speech To Democratic Leaders A First For Specter

By Peter Jackson ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - So far, the reunification of Sen. Arlen Specter and the Democratic Party has played out largely on the national stage.

The fifth-term senator's defection from the Republican Party after more than four decades sent shock waves through the political establishment in Washington and beyond.

While some GOP leaders expressed dismay over Specter's switch, President Barack Obama personally welcomed him to the Democratic fold. Just this week, Specter was rubbing shoulders with Hollywood VIPs that included Steven Spielberg and Kiefer Sutherland as he accompanied Obama to a fundraiser in Los Angeles.

Yet Specter understands better than anyone that his political longevity has its roots in Pennsylvania.

Behind the scenes, the 79- year-old senator has been making the rounds back home - getting to know the party's current leaders and renewing friendships with Democrats he has known for years.

At a Pittsburgh hotel next Friday, Specter will address the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee for the first time.

A campaign spokesman said Specter and his aides have been working on his speech for a week - signifying the importance he attaches to his appearance at a dinner honoring the late Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll.

For the past two weeks, the senator also has participated in daily conference calls with varying groups of regional and local party leaders to discuss their concerns. Gov. Ed Rendell, who like Specter launched his political career by getting elected as Philadelphia district attorney, also has joined many of the calls.

"It's one thing to have a lot of Democratic friends,'' said Specter campaign spokesman Christopher Nicholas. "It's another thing to spend a lot of time with their leaders.''

Specter, who left the GOP because he said it had grown too conservative for moderates like him, has impressed the Democratic leaders with his experience and knowledge, said state Democratic Chairman T.J. Rooney.

"He has been a champion on so many of the issues that matter to Democrats,'' Rooney said.

Random interviews with state committee members suggest they are likely to be more circumspect.

Cathi Zelazny, chairwoman of the Erie County Democrats, said party members in the state's northwestern corner question whether Specter is too old to serve another six-year term and whether he is truly committed to Democratic ideals.

"I need to hear him use the word `Democrat,''' she said. "He has to definitely portray himself as a Democrat to us.''

Since his switch, Specter has signaled a new willingness to compromise on two key Democratic proposals - a government health care plan that would compete with private insurers to cover middle-class Americans, and a bill to make it easier for workers to form unions.

Several state committee members said they are waiting to see if the devil is hiding in the details.

"Now comes the hard part. The senator is going to need to work very hard out (here) in the west,'' said Jim Burn, chairman of the Allegheny County Democrats.

At the state committee meeting, "I think basically he just needs to introduce himself,'' said Delaware County Democratic Chairman Cliff Wilson. "Everybody in that room knows who Arlen Specter is, but not everybody in that room has met him.''

Rep. Rep. Joe Sestak, a potential Specter foe in next year's primary, said he will be on hand in Pittsburgh for Specter's speech. Sestak acknowledged that Specter has done "some good things in the past,'' but questioned whether he is a strong enough advocate on issues such as health care, education and energy.

"I disagree with how he's done his general overall approach on all of those issues but I still think that, of course, I'd listen to him,'' he said.

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