PENNSYLVANIA -- It's 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and I'm at a gun show on the outskirts of Philadelphia where 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 semi-automatic 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) President Bush's flattering endorsement from last week. 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 Toomey literature are happy to fill in the gaps.
FIGHTING TO COME OUT on top in this dogfight with his conservative challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey, Specter, the Democrats' favorite Republican, has been forced to take a hard right turn. With both candidates fighting to out-Barry Goldwater the other guy, there is very little "compassionate conservative" temporizing.
A good illustration of this is the open and public courting of Christians in front of the national media by both candidates. More than one activist told me all the attention was a welcome change of pace from the red-headed stepson treatment they usually get from seasoned pols.
On Friday night, for example, in the heart of Amish country, Lancaster, the candidates clashed over who had the true Christian bona fides. Inside a large expo center with 400 or so supporters and a live band, Toomey received the endorsement of Dr. James Dobson. Dobson rarely makes political endorsements, but said he was doing so this time because the race was "a squeaker" and because the culture wars have "heated up."
Dobson's pull-no-punches speech will undoubtedly provide Democrats grist for the secularist mill come November. He began by announcing that he had come because God had wanted him to, and also because he relished the idea of a Toomey victory sending "shivers down the back of the liberal establishment."
When a child in the audience squealed loudly, Dobson, with a large backdrop of a man praying on bended knee in front of the Supreme Court, read the following poem he recently received in the mail: Roses are red/ Violets are blue/ When I was young, I got spanked/ because of you.
You might think Team Specter would shrug this off and concentrate on moderates, Specter's core constituency, in Philadelphia. But a gaggle of Specter supporters showed up outside the convention center with a former leader of the Christian Coalition, Rick Schenker, in tow, and held their own press conference. They managed to lure about half the reporters out of the Dobson event.
The endorsement ended up a bit lackluster, however, when Schenker admitted he had "difficulties" with both Toomey and Specter, and was endorsing Specter solely on the basis of helping Bush win re-election. "It's time to put aside the differences for the greater good," Schenker said, in an exceedingly bland plea for votes.
Back inside, Toomey was giving a speech fiery enough to make the spirit of John Winthrop crack a smile. He took Britney Spears to task for "making a mockery of marriage," accused the "media and the elite" of having "contempt for traditional values."
Toomey stated plainly that the decline in our culture was "made possible by liberalism," and described the Partial Birth Abortion Ban as a "small, modest step in the right direction" that we should "not get too excited about." The goal, after all, was the complete abolition of Roe v. Wade.
All this before he addressed his opponent. "Arlen Specter is on the wrong side of the culture war," Toomey said, bringing the crowd to their feet. "He always has been and he always will be."
SUNDAY AT THE gun show, I ask Specter, traveling with only a few aides, how he feels about the small but persistent groups of college students following him around at every event with Toomey signs and slogans.
"My voters might not be as intense as his," Specter says, "but there's a lot more of them if I can get them out on Tuesday."
Most observers agree with that assessment, but it's not the sort of clarion call one expects to hear from a candidate in the last days of an election. If Specter wins this, he'll clearly owe his victory to George W. Bush and fellow Pennsylvanian Senator Rick Santorum, both of whom have brought an exuberance to the Specter campaign that has given the candidate a fighting chance.