D-Day in Pa.

Posted: Apr 25, 2004 12:00 AM

President Bush went to Pittsburgh on Monday and called on Republicans (you have to be one, to qualify to vote in next Tuesday's primary) to vote for the incumbent senator, Arlen Specter. That endorsement sent shivers down the spines of GOP conservatives, who are rooting for the other candidate, Patrick J. Toomey.

The presidential endorsement is, after all, political dutifulness. Memory recalls a huge rally of conservatives at Garden City, Long Island, in 1962. The speaker was their hero, Senator Barry Goldwater, whose nomination for president was the heart's desire of the 2,000 persons present. The enemy, in those days, was Senator Jacob Javits, resented routinely because he was a political liberal, but despised because he was a Republican. There is no fury like that felt by the priestly caste against impostors. Everyone was waiting to hear the answer to the question: Senator Goldwater, do you endorse the reelection of Senator Javits?

"Yes." Stunned silence. Then, "I am chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee. Who do you think I favor?"

Those present who felt that Senator Goldwater could do no wrong comforted themselves by saying later in the evening that they detected a slight strain in the voice of Barry Goldwater, when endorsing Jack Javits for reelection. Well, if anyone was listening for a strain in the voice of George Bush endorsing the reelection of Arlen Specter, he didn't find it. Mr. Bush was speaking in the same tone of voice he uses to defend war in Iraq.

Now the reason Republicans give, in their smokers, for the endorsement of Specter is that the majority of the Republican Party in the Senate is a bare two members. That's true. But also true that there are 9 Senate races expected to be hotly contested in November. For the Republicans to lose their Senate majority, the Democrats would have to win eight of them. That being unlikely, the reelection of Arlen Specter is almost certainly not critical. If there were a national sweep against the GOP, such as to drown Republicans in Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, that avalanche would certainly also bury Arlen Specter, running for a fifth term in Pennsylvania.

It is expected that Mr. Specter would do well against the Democratic candidate this time around, Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, but so would the Republican challenger, in the judgment of those who feel about Specter as conservative New Yorkers felt about Javits, whom they finally jettisoned in 1980.

Pat Toomey is a vigorous figure who battled for the House seat in a heavily Democratic district in Pennsylvania and won. He did his three terms and then quit-as he had promised to do, believing in term limits. Toomey is a resolute conservative whose votes, on economic and social issues, have earned him high regard as a brainy and honest legislator. His champions in Pennsylvania are confident that he would do well in November. His backers nationwide, in a primary contest that has been singled out as the most important of the season, are saying that support for Toomey would be a hygienic transfusion for a Republican Party that seems adrift in profligate spending and the search for new social programs.

Arlen Specter is the man who voted in favor of Bill Clinton during impeachment, voted against Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, voted against school choice for the District of Columbia, endorses an absolutist interpretation of abortion rights. He is bright and he is tough and he belongs elsewhere. If reelected, his term would end when he is 80 years old and, some voters might hope, senescent, permitting him to vote accidentally every now and then for Republican principles.

You can't get mad at George Bush for going to Pittsburgh and doing his duty. That would be wrong, like getting mad at Barry Goldwater, which was unconstitutional. But GOP voters in Pennsylvania have the opportunity to forgive Bush, and vote for Toomey.