Specter and Sestak face off at Netroots Nation

Both Pennsylvania Democrats try to show they're the real deal for next year's Senate seat

Published August 14, 2009 5:15PM (EDT)

PITTSBURGH -- The highlight Friday morning of Netroots Nation, the progressive blog convention, was a preview of what could be the Democratic Party's only intramural fight in next year's election: the Pennsylvania Senate primary, between Democrat-come-lately Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak, the former admiral who's trying to challenge him from the left, despite a voting record that's not all that much more liberal than Specter's.

Both candidates came to the convention to try to prove their bona fides for the Netroots crowd, who can help funnel support -- and cash -- to their campaigns. But Specter may have won the day, if not the battle, with a bit of a stunt on healthcare reform. He needs any help he can get -- a poll out Thursday showed Sestak is gaining ground on Specter among Democrats, with Specter ahead only 47-34, and another one showing he's trailing Republican Pat Toomey 48-36. (Toomey is beating Sestak by about the same margin.)

Asked to describe how he can help President Obama persuade Republicans -- Specter's former colleagues -- to vote for reform proposals, he said he thought he'd have some pull with Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Susan Collins of Maine, George Voinovich of Ohio and Mike Enzi of Wyoming. The moderators -- Susie Madrek and Ari Melber -- pointed out that some of the crowd Specter used to run with hasn't been particularly helpful so far. Grassley, in particular, has been going around telling Iowans that Sarah Palin has it right, the healthcare bill would lead to "death panels," even as he tries to negotiate with Democrats to produce a compromise.

"The next time I see Chuck Grassley -- in fact, I'll tell you this, I will call him up today," Specter said. "I think his position -- I don't characterize it beyond saying he is not correct. It is not a death squad." People in the hall started waving their cell phones, saying, "Call him now!" So Specter bit: "Whoever said call him now, join me backstage and watch me dial," when the forum ends. And so, backstage he went, surrounded by a cluster of bloggers, to call Grassley and give him a piece of his mind. The Iowan, though, wasn't in, so Specter left a message. (Specter also promised to vote for cloture on the Employee Free Choice Act, a flip that wasn't particularly surprising in light of his new party registration.)

The rest of the forum didn't leave much reason to envy Pennsylvania Democrats who have to choose between the two of them next year. Specter's natural crotchetiness kept getting in the way of his efforts to play nice. "Without Specter, Collins and [Maine Republican Olympia] Snow, there would habe been no stimulus package," he said. Asked why his voting record went from grudgingly Democratic to enthusiastically Democratic only after Sestak announced his primary challenge in May, Specter refused to play along. "You have to take a look at the individual votes, and I'll tell you exactly why I did each one of them," he said. (He also admitted he'd never heard of FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver, prompting shouts of "oooh!" from the audience.) But he did offer one explanation. "As a Democrat, I don't have to look over my right shoulder," he said. "That's very comfortable."

Sestak, meanwhile, stuck to broad political cliches, saying he was in the race because "everyone should have what I have," and "I want our children to be all that they can be." Pressed about how progressives could win more loyalty once the candidates they support win office, Sestak demurred. "Just call -- we try to get back to everyone," he said. "I think you're special. I think every American is special."

But he did reiterate his strong support for overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and he said passing healthcare reform was a passion of his. "I do believe this president has it absolutely right," Sestak said. "I wish we were more bold and more aggressive, but I believe he's on the right path."

By Mike Madden

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

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