WASHINGTON — WHY should Arlen Specter run for president?
The Republican senator from Pennsylvania is positioned on the socially liberal end of his party at a time when conservatism appears on the ascendance. He's a vocal supporter of abortion rights -- in loud contradiction to many leading voices of his party. And he's a Jewish critic of the increasingly powerful Christian right.
''Why not?'' says American University presidential historian Alan Lichtman, speaking as Senator Specter announced his candidacy yesterday.
''He's nearing the end of his career. He'll make a splash on the national scene. And there is a small constituency out there for him -- probably in single digits. But there is a pro-choice element in the party that no one else is squarely addressing.''
In his announcement, Specter described himself as a ''fiscal and economic conservative and social libertarian,'' blending his abortion-rights message with a get-tough-on-crime and balance-the-federal-budget theme that puts him squarely in sync with the rest of his party.
He outlined his economic goals: Balance the budget through spending reduction, begin to pay off the national debt, and foster economic growth through enactment of a flat tax.
He also promised to ''improve personal security for our citizens at home -- and abroad.'' No more plea bargains with violent criminals. Early intervention for juvenile offenders.
And he promised, ''I will put the teeth back in the death penalty.''
He also, in his trademark combative style, took on the religious right. ''There are those in our party...,'' he warned, who would use ''our political capital to pursue a radical social agenda that would end a woman's right to choose and mandate school prayer.''
''When [Christian Coalition founder, the Rev.] Pat Robertson says there is no constitutional doctrine of separation between church and state, I say he is wrong,'' Specter said.
''When Ralph Reed [executive director of the Christian Coalition] says a pro-choice Republican isn't qualified to be our president, I say the Republican Party will not be blackmailed.''
He says he will fight to take ''the strident anti-choice language'' out of the Republican Party platform and replace it with language ''that respects human life,'' while respecting the diversity of views within the party.
For abortion-rights advocates, Specter's candidacy presents a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he has carved out a niche as ''the pro-choice candidate'' in an increasingly crowded field of Republicans running for the nomination. While other candidates are not highlighting the issue, he has put the issue in play.
But, for feminists, Specter comes with baggage: As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was one of the toughest inquisitors of Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Specter has since said he regrets accusing Ms. Hill of perjury, but many women have not forgotten his role in the Hill-Thomas spectacle.
The bottom line, though, is that most feminists don't vote Republican. So what will Specter's candidacy achieve? ''He makes life uncomfortable for a lot of people in the Republican Party,'' says Professor Lichtman.
Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas, the two Republicans seen as having the best shot at winning the nomination, have both taken anti-abortion stands. But they're uncomfortable with the issue, says Lichtman, and Specter will not cut them any slack.