Arlen Specter's Keystone Candidacy

Former Republican Crossed the Aisle, but Still Faces Heat From Both Parties, The Public -- and Rival Joe Sestak

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) has faced countless protesters and jeers at town halls across the state focusing on health care reform. With a democratic primary around the corner, Specter aims to prove his allegiance to his new party while also maintaining his legendary maverick political record.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009


A stiff-backed Arlen Specter bounded out of his burgundy Lincoln Town Car at a community center here and into a scene that had become all too familiar for the 79-year-old senator: "Arlen!" several hundred of his fellow Pennsylvanians screamed. "Say 'no' to health care!" they chanted in a moblike throng around his motorcade's path.

This was the fifth of Specter's health-care town halls, each of which has been must-see TV. President Obama's ambitious reimagining of how Americans get sick and die may succeed or it may fail, but it's the electricity between Specter and Pennsylvania itself that may define the fight for the history books. In Pennsylvania, after all, misgivings about Obama persisted past last year's primaries and had to be salved by the inclusion of Scranton native Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket. And the political struggle for Specter won't end with this bill -- it is the first of three challenges, the second being his 2010 Democratic primary and the third being the general election, if he makes it that far, against the man whose challenge he escaped by switching parties in April.

Specter's path to political survival takes the Kansas-born son of a Russian Jewish immigrant directly into the most fractious American dilemmas, and on this day, he ignored hundreds of hecklers and followed his beefed-up security detail into a holding room. For two minutes, Specter stood in silence and stared out a window into a scrubby back lot. He scanned over his notes on an index card, fiddled with the hearing aid in his right ear and said, "It's showtime."

Whether he turned the volume up or down, he still had to confront seething constituents face-to-face and stay true to the flinty, unflinching persona that has made him such a fixture in Keystone State politics. And knowing that this summer's heat had more than the usual dangers, Specter asked the officers whether the audience had been cleared through metal detectors. The answer: No. Specter paused. For a moment, he processed the implications, with a hint of concern in his eyes. Then he clapped his hands together and shuffled slowly down an empty corridor toward the rowdy hall. Any fear fled from his face as he grabbed a microphone and entered the fray.

"Booo! Booo!" some attendees screamed. Others tried to shout over them: "Let him speak! Let him speak!"

"I'll report back to my colleagues in Washington what the temperature is in Kittanning," Specter said in his signature gravelly monotone. "It's about 213 degrees Fahrenheit." (He noted later, ever technical, that he chose that temperature because it's one degree above the standard boiling point of 212 degrees.)

The temperature was about the same in State College the day before, in Lebanon and Lewisburg the day before that, and in Philadelphia to start it all off. "There is great anger in America today, really occasioned by the terrible economy and all the unemployment," Specter told reporters after one of the town halls. "When you have health care, it's a flash point. The genie came out of the bottle."

As Specter caravanned across Pennsylvania describing the proposal in patient, methodical terms, the president he was defending suddenly personalized the debate, with Obama retelling the drama of his grandmother's dying days. On the stump, Specter keeps own medical history mostly private, though his is a compelling tale. So much of it has been publicly visible -- the incision marks on his scalp, the slow-to-return gray nest of hair that replaced thick, dark curls were evidence of bouts with benign brain tumors in 1993 and 1996, and then cancer in the form of Hodgkin's disease in 2005 and 2008.

Specter chose to become a Democrat, after a kitchen-table strategy session with his son, and concluded it would be an easier reelection route -- until Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak declared his candidacy Aug. 4. An energetic upstart from the Philly suburbs, Sestak is quicker to share his own saga of overcoming a brain tumor, albeit one that arose in his 4-year-old daughter. Four years ago, Alexandra Sestak received a diagnosis of an often-fatal cancer similar to Sen. Ted Kennedy's illness. A doctor told Sestak that she had three to nine months to live. At that point, Sestak recalled, "Nothing else mattered."

Just as he was returning to civilian life after years as a naval officer, Sestak took Alexandra on a cross-country quest for survival, with every day presenting a lethal concern that her cancer could spread. Father and daughter went all over the map to consult pathologists and other specialists -- to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, to Children's Hospital in Washington, to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Alexandra underwent three operations, chemotherapy and radiation, and she endured.

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