Obama won’t bail out Arlen Specter

Chances fade for a presidential visit to Pennsylvania before Tuesday's Democratic primary

Topics: Arlen Specter vs. Joe Sestak, War Room, 2010 Elections, Barack Obama,

Obama won't bail out Arlen SpecterSen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., leads a Senate field hearing, in Philadelphia, Monday, March 29, 2010. Experts invited to speak debated whether secret video recordings should fall under the federal wiretap statute. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Credit: AP)

The White House has apparently decided to let Sen. Arlen Specter survive — or not — in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania Democratic primary on his own, without another visit from President Obama.

Specter’s path to a narrow victory against Rep. Joe Sestak, who’s been surging lately, depends on racking up a big margin in Philadelphia and near Pittsburgh, staying about even in the suburbs and not getting beat too badly in the rest of the state. Some Pennsylvania Democrats had passed along a persistent rumor earlier this week that Obama would make one final trip to Philly in the race’s final weekend to help drive up turnout in the city for Specter, whom the party establishment agreed to back after he switched parties last year.

But now Democratic officials now say this won’t be happening. 

Sending Obama into the state one last time might have actually worked for the White House, in ways that last-minute campaign swings in New Jersey last November and Massachusetts in January didn’t — mainly because a Democratic primary electorate is much different than a general election electorate. For Tuesday’s primary, Obama might actually have enough clout to drag Specter over the finish-line. But the risk of going 0-for-3 in last-minute rescue attempts was apparently too much for the White House, which still wants to use the president to help Democrats in November’s elections.

Obama’s presence over the last days in the campaign will wind up being just on TV and radio, in ads Specter’s been running over and over again.

Obama’s absence from the state means the race will probably just come down to whichever side has the stronger ground game. Polls have it virtually deadlocked (though one new one out Thursday had Sestak winning by nine points). Vice President Biden may still return before Tuesday. A close election that hinges on turnout could favor Specter, who’s got several big unions plus the powerful Philadelphia Democratic apparatus on his side.

“The inner working of the campaign knows how to prevail in close elections, and we’ve got the best organized political mechanisms in America at work in the city of Philadelphia under the good hand of Bobby Brady,” said T.J. Rooney, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman, referring to Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., who doubles as the chairman of the city’s party committee. “If I’m going into a tough race, I want a couple things in my corner. I want Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and I want Bobby Brady — that is potent, magical stuff.”

Rooney said there’s been no argument between the Specter campaign and the White House over whether to schedule another visit. “You cannot turn on a television in this state” without seeing Obama, he said. “I don’t know what more the man has to do, other than fly to Philadelphia, kiss [Specter] on the lips and be on his way. Nobody can question whose side in this race President Obama is on.”

If Sestak does win, Rooney may have to walk back some of his pre-primary rhetoric. The chairman hasn’t been shy about expressing his preference for Specter in a battle against Republican Pat Toomey, even though it was the threat of a GOP primary against Toomey that drove Specter from the party.

“We need somebody who is not going to be morphed into somebody that does not appeal to moderate Republicans and independents,” Rooney told Salon. “Arlen Specter is the poster person for appealing to moderate Republicans and independents… Arlen needs to be the nominee if we want to hold this seat.”

The polls seem to disagree; the Sestak campaign pointed reporters to recent surveys showing Sestak and Toomey running even, but Specter falling way behind.

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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