Senate race highlights GOP divide

Pennsylvania's Specter this week faces a primary challenge from the right.

Coming in out of a sudden downpour, hundreds of likely Republican voters, children in tow, settle into the front rows of the vast expo center in Lancaster, Pa. They're fired up for a vote on Tuesday that could produce one of the biggest upsets in Senate history - the ouster of a four-term senator by an opponent in his own party.

Here, in the heart of Amish country, Rep. Pat Toomey (R) hopes to ride a conservative social agenda - and a late surge in the polls - to defeat Sen. Arlen Specter.

A big vote for Mr. Toomey here, where many stores still close Sundays and one-third of families home-school their kids, could tip the election, especially if turnout is low in Mr. Specter's suburban base.

This week's vote will not only shape a key Senate race this fall, but also test the reach of a revolt within the Republican Party against moderates such as Specter, who is for abortion rights and against big tax cuts.

"In the final few days in the campaign it's all about enthusiasm, voter turnout, and getting your friends to turn out," says Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington political analyst. Toomey's followers seem to have a monopoly on primary-race enthusiasm, but Mr. Rothenberg says the incumbent may be the GOP's best hope this fall to hold Pennsylvania in a closely divided Senate: "If Specter goes down to defeat, that gives the Democrats a better chance to take back the Senate."

The fervor factor was on display Friday, when a soaking rain failed to stop Toomey's legion from gathering in the expo hall here. Among the boosters who spoke was Colorado broadcaster James Dobson, whose Christian pro-family radio shows are heard weekly by over 5 million US listeners. "This race has implications for the whole country and the whole world," he told the crowd of hundreds. "The battle for marriage is the battle for the heart and soul of this country, and we are on the verge of losing it."

Dr. Dobson's appearance was the Toomey campaign's answer to President Bush's endorsement of Specter in Pittsburgh last week. A strong independent voice in a Republican Party that has been moving rightward, Specter has faced primary challenges before, but none against so well-funded and credible an opponent.

Social conservatives, like Dobson, have not forgotten Specter's opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 nor his bid to remove the anti-abortion plank from the Republican platform. Fiscal conservatives resent Specter's record in blocking higher Bush tax cuts. They also note his recent "Hall of Shame" award for "23 years of pork barreling at taxpayers' expense" from Citizens Against Government Waste.

If Specter holds his seat - and Republicans hold the Senate - he is in line to take over chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which passes on presidential judicial nominees. For conservatives, that prospect is a big incentive to back Toomey.

In the crucial last days of the campaign, Specter is relying on a legion of paid campaign workers to knock on doors, make phone calls, and get out the vote. The National Republican Senatorial Committee just sent Specter an additional $300,000 to help get his message out. But the key to a Specter win could be Bush's recent endorsement, replayed in statewide ads.

Across the state, Republican voters are being deluged with ads, mailings, and automated phone messages from both camps. Lancaster home-schooler Debbie Spangler says that she hung up on President Bush (the recording). She fired off an angry e-mail to the White House. "I told the president that I approved of his stands on most issues, but that he's hurt himself here by endorsing Specter. He's not going to swing my vote," she says. "Dr. Dobson's endorsement will carry a lot more weight in this area."

Two independent polls show Specter's once large double-digit lead dwindled to 5 or 6 percent last week, nearly a dead heat if you consider the margin of error.

In the last days of the campaign, Specter urges moderates to turn out. Toomey's "voters are likely to come out in a blizzard and my voters are likely to need some inducement," he told students at Widener University in Chester Friday.

He's also keeping up the pressure on the air wars, describing his challenger as "far out" and opposed to spending that will help Pennsylvanians.

Although outspent 3 to 1 in this race, Toomey has been reinforced in the air war by groups such as the antitax Club for Growth, which has spent more than $2 million. Its ads attack Specter's record as liberal, tracking that of Democrat John Kerry 70 percent of the time.

Toomey's top strength, supporters say, is the power of informal networks. Social conservatives are using e-mail, church bulletins, and phone banks (with volunteers from as far away as Arizona and Florida using free cellphone minutes).

If Toomey wins, a seat once considered safe for the GOP is suddenly a toss-up, say political handicappers.

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