It's 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and I'm at a gun show on the outskirts of Philadelphia where Sen. Arlen Specter is set to tout his NRA endorsement. The man seated next to me has a black T-shirt with blood-red lettering that reads, "Some People Are Alive Simply Because It Is Illegal to Kill Them." I accidentally catch his eye and he glares at me, which wouldn't make me nervous except I am in a room full of semiautomatic weapons, memorabilia from the Third Reich, and Japanese Samurai swords.
The only small talk I make is with a middle-aged man who expresses disappointment that there aren't any vendors selling the reinforced white plastic tubes you bury in your backyard to "dump your guns in when the man shows up to take 'em."
"I should have picked one at the last show," he says. I nod and smile, because...well, what do you say to something like that?
A few minutes later, Specter shows up and gives the kind of speech anti-government conspiracy theorists go gaga over. He rails against the ATF and FBI raid of Randy Weaver's Ruby Ridge cabin -- during which an ATF officer and Weaver's wife and teenage son were killed -- and the siege of the Branch Davidian complex at Waco.
Specter plays up the folk hero status Weaver currently enjoys on the gun show circuit (Weaver makes his living these days mostly by selling signed Polaroids of himself at these shows), telling the crowd Weaver had been "entrapped" by the government when he refused to "be an informant." Specter promises to use his clout as a senator to combat such "abuses of power" in the future.
That said, Specter moves on to the heart of his stump speech, which consists of quoting and re-quoting (at length) from President Bush's flattering endorsement six days earlier. Specter is in surprisingly good spirits, but seems frazzled when the gun rights folks start to ask questions. Queried about his support for McCain-Feingold, Specter simply apologizes for the vote. He lifts up his palms and says, "I made a mistake." A question on his support for the Assault Weapons Ban gets a non-verbal shrug. A trio of college girls with literature from the campaign of his challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey, are happy to fill in the gaps.
I'm canvassing Pennsylvania because the Specter-Toomey race has become a proxy for a larger struggle within the Republican Party. The four-term senator from a battleground state was described by President Bush as being just "a little bit independent minded," in an aw-shucks there-goes-Uncle-Stew again way, but Specter's votes and speeches over the years have made him a tempting target for conservative activists would like to make a statement against the compassionate conservative drift of the party.
Specter is the man, after all, who enthusiastically supports taxpayer funding of abortions and is the beneficiary of thousand of dollars of Planned Parenthood money targeting Toomey on his behalf; who's against tort reform and school choice; who supports racial quotas, who helped invent the verb to Bork, who voted "yea" on certifiable pinko Ruth Bader Ginsburg and "not proven" on the removal of Bill Clinton (citing an obscure provision of Scottish -- yes, you read that right, Scottish -- law), and whose presumptive chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee is not likely to be kind to traditional jurists.
And there's more, of course: Specter fought Bush's tax cuts; has a lifetime love affair with labor unions; and was the only Republican senator to vote for a bill allowing the International Criminal Court to try American soldiers -- an attack on our sovereigntyso heinous even John F. Kerry voted against it.
So it should have come as no surprise that rightwing activists looking for a way to send a message to the Bush administration and Congress -- in protest of everything from the orgiastic spending to campaign finance reform -- settled on this race. The conservative money pouring into the state isn't enough to pull Toomey even with Specter's $10 million war chest, but there are other benefits. Conservative publications have focused attention on the race and talk radio has decided to talk this one up. Volunteers, from in and out of state, are turning the Toomey campaign into more of an electoral crusade.
Conservative Christian Radio personality Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is flown into the heart of Amish country the Friday before the vote to endorse Toomey. Dobson explains to 400 or so Toomey supporters that he rarely makes political endorsements, but he is doing so here because the race is "a squeaker" and because the culture wars have "heated up" of late. Dobson says that a Toomey win will send "shivers down the back of the liberal establishment." And then Toomey opts to send some pre-emptive shivers by promising to work to overturn Roe v. Wade.
This populist challenge, and the incumbent's withering poll numbers, has both Specter and the national GOP spooked, and they've hatched a three-pronged approach to save his hide. First, George W. Bush endorses Specter in the most unambiguous possible terms ("I'm here to say it as plainly as I can: Arlen Specter is the right man for the United States Senate") and attempts to recast the election as a race between Toomey and himself. Second, Arlen Specter panders shamelessly, thus the Attila the Hun routine at the gun show. Third, and most surprising, the conservative elements of the Republican Party go to work to deny Toomey as many conservative votes as possible.
At the Dobson event, for instance, a gaggle of Specter supporters shows up outside the convention center with a former leader of the Christian Coalition, Rick Schenker, and holds its own press conference. Though the endorsement is less than full-throated -- Schenker says that pragmatic conservative voters should "put aside the differences for the greater good" -- it does manage to lure about half the reporters, and others, away from the event.
Fellow Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, also slavishly praised Specter in a television spot. In fact, Santorum has taken to telling everyone within earshot that the primary challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey, is "too conservative for Pennsylvania." That's right, Rick Santorum, the man who raised a firestorm last year comparing consensual gay sex to "bigamy," "polygamy," and "incest," has suddenly discovered that Toomey, a man whose positions are slightly to the left of his own, is just too far right.
For his part, Toomey seems underprepared for the role he's been cast in. His campaign must be one of the most poorly run in modern memory (more on this shortly) and the endorsement of Bush has knocked everyone for a loop. Toomey had expected the White House to stay out of the race or at least offer only token opposition to his challenge; Bush and Specter reframing the race as Toomey vs. Bush, and blanketing the airwaves with millions of dollars in paid ads to reinforce this impression, has complicated things.
In one important sense, Toomey should have seen this coming. Much of the support for his campaign, in and out of state, is an attempt to send a warning to George W. Bush and steer his party in a more principled, explicitly conservative direction. But rather than playing up the David and Goliath dynamic that Bush's intervention creates, Toomey refuses to toss a feather at the president, opting instead for talk of the opportunity that this election presents to voters, along with a few obligatory digs at the guy he's running against.
Toomey tells the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the current "center-right coalition" in American politics had been a long time coming. "And it's a big deal. It's a big deal whether we seize this chance and actually advance the cause that we say we believe in -- limited government, lower taxes, less government spending, the free-enterprise system, and personal freedom and personal responsibility and traditional values -- that set of ideals that brought us together as a party." On the Monday before the April 27 primary, he holds out an olive branch to the president, allowing that "everyone's entitled to one mistake."
From a reporter's perspective, trying to deal with Team Toomey is a nightmare. Phone calls are never returned, the website isn't updated, promises are routinely broken, none of the staffers have the authority to answer simple questions about scheduling, there is a dearth of events outside of boring, rote press conferences, and it costs a pound of flesh to get a copy of the candidate's itinerary for even those events.
At the Lancaster Host Resort, I enter an event listed as "open to the public" and am promptly kicked out of the conference hall; no press allowed. Now it so happens that I had spent a week calling the campaign to be sure that this sort of thing didn't happen, and was specifically told by a Toomey press flak that everything was kosher, come on up. But now he is nowhere in sight and the young volunteers aren't buying it.
Outside, I'm accused of being a member of the Specter campaign by someone who misheard my Spectator affiliation. After I go to my car and get a business card to prove I am not, in fact, with the senator's campaign, I'm eventually admitted to a press conference for print reporters, hastily arranged in response to our disbarment from an event that was supposed to be open to everyone. Back inside, I am set upon by a shaggy-haired college age staffer with small gold hoop earrings, who, somewhere in his testosterone-addled pea brain, somehow decides I am with Specter again. "You've got a lot of balls coming in here," college dude tells me. I'm so angry that I begin making mental notes on how to file a story from the county jail after this thing comes down to fisticuffs.
The official Toomey campaign is so screwed up that Toomey supporters organize themselves, going to what seemed like every intersection in central Pennsylvania. These volunteers armed with loud voices and bright yellow signs are shockingly passionate -- and considerably more effective and polite than his paid staff. Part of their allure is they are political novices, innocent and convinced the righteous will prevail. Many have never worked on a campaign before, and, as such, are not surprised by the national media's attention to the race. To hear them tell it, this is the most important race since...well, since ever.
"If the election was going to be decided on bumper stickers and signs, it'd be Toomey in a landslide," one 22-year-old college student tells me. "I can't imagine Toomey losing. We've got the candidate, we've got the truth, and we've got the energy to take 'em both to the polls." It is obvious there is some naivete at work here, but it is refreshing. The "there's no way we can lose" triumphalism is nearly universally held among Toomey's volunteers. Meanwhile, Specter is paying $75 a day to college students to get them out canvassing neighborhoods on his behalf.
All of this makes for a nail-biter on election night. With the race a statistical tie in the polls, nobody rushes to call it, and the vote count swings back and forth for half the evening. At 11 p.m., television screens put the race at 50-50. Only well after midnight does the AP declare Specter the victor by less than two points.
Despite the close loss, there is surprisingly little sorrow at Toomey's primary night party at a Fogelsville Holiday Inn. With Toomey expected to stick to his pledge not to serve more than three terms in the House, most supporters still look at this as the beginning of something -- not the end. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, some begin to whisper about a November run for the governorship. "I'm not sure what he should do, but I know he should do something," a young woman festooned with Toomey buttons and stickers says. "He's the best we've got and we can't lose him."
By all accounts, Specter's headquarters is nearly empty, and his victory speech uninspired. But, of course, revelers are not the lifeblood of democracy, voters are. Toomey has the better party, but Specter has the better night.
Although it may be difficult for conservatives smarting from the loss to see, the Toomey/Specter race was ultimately a victory for the cause. By coming so close, Toomey's supporters proved that cash and clout can be diminished by principles and ideals -- a feat Campaign Finance advocates had lectured us was impossible. This story will likely incite others to stage their own (hopefully better orchestrated) rebellions. Pat Toomey deserves to be commended.
Specter, already the longest-serving senator in the state's history, will be 80 by the time his seat comes up again. This will be his last term. It's anybody's guess how long his gratitude to President Bush will last. Only then will we know exactly how grave Bush's "one mistake" truly was.