Arlen Specter campaigns as an insider Pa. senator takes pride in incumbency

April 21, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Staff Writer

PAOLI, PA — PAOLI, Pa. -- In a year of anti-incumbent anger, Arlen Specter is running for a third term in the U.S. Senate proudly wrapped in the cloak of his title.

His television and radio ads star average voters -- farmers, mothers and aged veteran's wives -- recalling the senator's help. One day last week, Mr. Specter made a wide loop through the small towns of eastern Pennsylvania, touting his efforts to secure federal funds for a chemical waste cleanup at a Paoli railroad yard and housing aid in Doylestown.

Still, a sour economy and an irritable throw-'em-out voter mood have the senator casting frequent glances over his shoulder. Mr. Specter is particularly concerned that his anti-abortion foes could tip the balance in an expected low-turnout primary April 28, although most political analysts expect him to prevail.

"I'm working very hard," said the 62-year-old GOP senator, sippingcoffee in his car as it breezed toward another appointment. "I'm not taking anything for granted."

"He's all right, he was DA and stuff," said Fred Vallese, a 69-year-old shopping center manager in Paoli, referring to Mr. Specter's days as Philadelphia's district attorney in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Woodrow Lutz, an inspector at Pennsylvania Precision Cast Parts in Lebanon, also expects to support the incumbent for a third term. "I think he's doing a good job, helping people," Mr. Lutz said.

Helping people. That is the theme Mr. Specter's campaign hopes to drive home. Some see incumbency as a liability this year; but the senator is trying to use it like a talisman.

"These are ingredients that touch the voter," explained Patrick Meehan, the senator's campaign manager. Anti-incumbency is fanned by those on Capitol Hill who forget those at home, he said, adding: "Arlen Specter really never lost touch with his constituents."

The senator's aides keep a running tally on his trips back home: 1,658 between 1981 and mid-February. A dogged campaigner, Mr. Specter nonetheless comes off as cerebral and stiff with voters. Greeting railroad workers in Paoli, a Philadelphia suburb, the senator in a crisp blue suit offered a stilted "Hello, men."

But it is another form of incumbency that has embittered women's groups and other constituents: the senator's perch on the Judiciary Committee, where they believe he savaged Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.

Mr. Specter was the Republican point man during the explosive televised hearings. He persistently questioned Ms. Hill about her allegations of sexual harassment against Judge Thomas, who strongly denied them and later was confirmed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. At one point the senator accused Ms. Hill of perjury.

"We feel Specter really abused Anita Hill," said Chris Niebrzydowski, state president of the National Organization for Women, adding that the senator "negated" his support for women's issues by backing Judge Thomas.

"I was as low-key as I could be," Mr. Specter said. "The polls are decisively in favor of what I did. But there are some who do not like it, and I understand that."

Some political analysts say the senator's support of Judge Thomas was designed to appease Republican conservatives -- angered by his opposition to Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork in 1987 -- and head off an expected primary challenge.

"That's just not correct," Mr. Specter said, explaining that he found Judge Bork too extreme and Judge Thomas qualified.

Mr. Specter acknowledged he is now trying to mend fences with women's groups, through meetings and ads pointing to support for breast and ovarian cancer research. Meanwhile, he also has been embarrassed by an unlikely source: "JFK."

The popular film mocks the senator by name. Mr. Specter, as assistant counsel to the Warren Commission, advocated the theory that a single bullet struck President John Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally. "I don't plan on using ['JFK'] in my spots," the senator said dryly.

Mr. Specter also is being squeezed from the right. His pro-abortion rights stance and moderately progressive record have produced a conservative Republican challenge for next week's primary.

His opponent is state Rep. Stephen F. Freind, who authored Pennsylvania's restrictive abortion law. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of that law Wednesday -- the 48th birthday of Mr. Freind, considered one of the nation's best-known anti-abortion state legislators.

When he was Philadelphia's district attorney, Mr. Specter hired his future opponent as a prosecutor. Mr. Freind delights in needling his former boss and has produced a comic book called "Arlen's Clubhouse" that blasts the senator for his support of abortion rights and tax increases and his opposition to Judge Bork.

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