Will George W. Bush be Specter's downfall?

In an interview with Salon, Rep. Joe Sestak hints at his strategy for taking on the senator

Published June 1, 2009 10:40PM (EDT)

Though he appears close to doing so, Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., hasn't truly and definitively committed to taking on Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., in a primary next year. But, given his comments in a recent interview with Salon, if Sestak does run, at least one part of his strategy for taking down the Senate veteran seems clear: Don't let Specter escape the shadow of former President Bush.

More than once during the interview, Sestak made sure to bring up Bush -- and Specter's having supported the former president's policies -- even at times when he didn't really relate directly to the question at hand. Asked about polls that show him trailing the incumbent, Sestak worked in, "I got elected to oppose President Bush's policies -- with respect to the president -- oppose his policies while Arlen was down there supporting the president almost 4 out of 5 times." Asked whether his primary challenge, if it happens, would come from Specter's left flank, Sestak said, "I look at an issue... where Arlen has voted almost four out of five times with President Bush and see he's more conservative, or at least more supportive of President Bush's policies, which I disagreed with so many of them."

It's certainly not a bad strategy, especially considering Sestak's relative lack of name recognition and Specter's lead in the polls that have been conducted thus far. Come 2010, almost two years after the former president left office, it might be difficult for Democrats nationwide to use him against their Republican opponents in a general election. But Sestak's running in a Democratic primary against someone who belonged to the GOP during the Bush administration -- that's a pretty good opportunity for him.

And Sestak's also been gifted with the chance to use every politician's favorite trick: The outsider campaign. Discussing the Democratic establishment's support for Specter, Sestak told Salon, "There's no entitlements in America, just like there's no right for someone to anoint someone, as the Washington political establishment did, made him the person to run in the primaries." Asked whether he would make the Netroots a focal point of his campaign, as Ned Lamont did in his campaign against Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, he said they and other grassroots groups would be "instrumental," explaining, "They are upset, like I was, about a deal that was made in Washington -- a deal made by people we respect, but a deal nevertheless of reaching over to the GOP" to find a Democratic candidate.

Sestak does say he intends to run, but he's still giving himself time to get out of the race, and says his family will have the last word. The congressman told Salon he'd like to make his final decision "in the not-too-distant future... a month-plus" but before the end of the summer.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Arlen Specter Vs. Joe Sestak Joe Sestak