Longest of long shots

April 06, 1995|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- WHAT DOES Arlen Specter do now?

No doubt he has tons of chutzpah, a Yiddish word Webster's defines as "supreme self-confidence, nerve, gall."

Like the TV watch ads, Mr. Specter takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin.'

Here's a guy who wasn't stopped by losing four elections in a row (DA, mayor, governor, senator). Feminist howls over his badgering of Anita Hill didn't chase him from the Senate. Surgery to remove a brain tumor didn't slow him.

Then the ultimate chutzpah: a Specter run for the presidency. Odds on a little-known, moderate Jewish senator from Pennsylvania beating the conservative GOP field were a zillion-to-1.

They aren't getting shorter.

At the moment he officially entered the '96 race Friday in a blaze of celebrityhood, his campaign may have peaked.

He enjoyed a burst of fame with the obligatory "I-am-running" formalities. Accompanied by wife Joan, he announced in front of the Lincoln Memorial and a sprinkle of "Specter '96" placards.

"I intend to win the other house, the White House, with 10 commitments to America," said Mr. Specter, playing off Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America."

OK, so Bob Dole, who has 10 times the name identity, or Phil Gramm, who has 10 times the campaign dough, didn't tremble.

Even Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who owes Mr. Specter for helping him win in 1994, rolled his eyes during Mr. Specter's speech.

"Always tough, always uphill," sighed Mr. Specter before heading for ritual stops in New Hampshire and Iowa, where polls rate him in low single digits.

But Mr. Specter's in jeopardy of sinking from long shot to long, long shot. He must scramble to redefine his candidacy, give it new spin and pizazz.

Trouble is, they're stealing Mr. Specter's issues. The themes he says compelled him to run are being defused.

Abortion? Mr. Specter hoped to draw support and money as the only pro-choice candidate. He inveighed Friday against those "who would pursue a radical social agenda, ending a woman's right to choose."

But the expected '96 entry of California Governor Pete Wilson strips Mr. Specter's uniqueness. Mr. Wilson is not only pro-choice, he'll have enormous TV funds and clout.

Flat tax? Mr. Specter holds up a postcard-sized tax form on TV shows. But the flat-tax gizmo, which Jerry Brown pushed in the '92 Democratic marathon, is a gizmo co-opted by other Republicans. It may even wind up in Republicans '96 platform.

Evangelical zealots? Mr. Specter, who says boos from religious fundamentalists spurred his race, lashes at intolerance of the Christian right -- the Robertson-Falwell-Buchanan wing he blames for Republicans' hate-filled '92 convention.

But Mr. Specter's avowed target, the Christian coalition, is softening its hard edges. Whether or not reacting to Mr. Specter's attacks, leader Ralph Reed apologized Monday for his group's "insensitivity" to Jews and for calling the United States a "Christian nation."

Mr. Specter's in peril of being dismissed as a one-issue fringe player.

On CBS' "Face the Nation," journalist Gloria Borger pressed him, "What if the Republican party ends up with a strong anti-abortion platform. What do you do then?"

"I'm talking about more than the abortion issue," dodged Mr. Specter. "I'm talking about my background."

"But it's how you're distinguishing yourself from other candidates," said Ms. Borger.

Clock running down, Mr. Specter countered, "No, no, that's not quite so. I have a unique background in crime control, having been a district attorney. I've got special insights into foreign policy and terrorism . . . "

That was the sound of Mr. Specter desperately trying to shake the doomed freakishness of a one-note campaigner.

Two ways out of Mr. Specter's trap:

1) Ride the TV gravitas of the intelligence panel boss who reshapes the troubled CIA. 2) Challenge roughneck rightwinger Pat Buchanan to a series of TV debates, politics' version of the Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano brawls.

Unless his campaign image is sharpened, Mr. Specter may go down as another ridiculed Pennsylvanian oddity. He'll be Milton Shapp without a violin.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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