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Arlen Specter hopes for big turnout on primary day

May 18, 2010 |  1:03 pm

Serving up votes

Under drizzly gray skies, Sen. Arlen Specter visited polling places in the Mt. Airy and West Oak Lane sections of Philadelphia -- wards vital for the five-term senator to win his tough primary battle on Tuesday.

Specter, a longtime Republican who switched parties last year, needs to drive voter turnout in the city, notably in predominantly African American neighborhoods such as these, if he is to win the Democratic primary against Rep. Joe Sestak.

“We’re going to do great if we get the vote out,” Specter said after he and his wife, Joan, greeted voters at Finley Playground.

Incumbents in both parties are facing difficult reelection battles across the nation, but Specter has the added challenge of convincing voters who are suspicious that he changed political parties as a matter of convenience, not core belief. He has said he switched parties, after voting for President Obama’s $787-billion economic stimulus, because he felt there was little room for moderates in the modern Republican Party and because his stimulus vote insured that he could no longer win the state’s GOP primary.

After Renee Jenerette, 59, voted, she said she has supported the senator even in his Republican years because he looked out for his hometown of Philadelphia, bringing jobs and federal dollars to the city.

“He’s from Philadelphia County, and the other counties are not looking out for Philadelphia,” said Jenerette, a retired social worker. “I’ll keep voting for him as long as he keeps fighting for Philadelphia.”

Specter has the support of the Democratic establishment, including the White House and popular Gov. Ed Rendell. The labor unions and the Democratic Party were working hard to get out the vote across the city and the state, with supporters donning clear yellow ponchos over their “Vote Arlen Specter: Push Button 2” T-shirts as they walked the wet streets of Philadelphia.

But voter turnout...

... appeared light around noon. “The day is going fine. I’d like a little less rain, but I’ll take the cards we’re dealt,” Specter said after visiting the Simon Community Center polling station. “We really have to get out our vote.”

Bernice Murray, 69, cast her ballot for Specter because of his record of moderation and willingness to cross party lines in the Senate. “He’s always been a very sincere person to me, regardless of which party he’s in,” said the retired substitute teacher. “I like what he does and I like what he says.”

Lelon Cooper, 71, a retired Boeing worker who also supported Specter during his time in the GOP, agreed. “He was the only Republican I could vote for,” he said. “I’ve liked him for a long time.”

But others were deeply skeptical of Specter’s decades in the GOP, and cast their ballot not because of any particular admiration for Sestak, but to oppose Specter. “Specter was a Republican for so long,” said George Bonds, 57, a disabled blacksmith, after casting his vote. “I oppose anyone that took sides with Bush.”

Johnelle Duncan, 72, said that she was skeptical of Specter’s party switch, a point Sestak has been driving home in a flurry of advertising that shows former President George W. Bush lavishing praise on Specter, and shows the senator alongside former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “A true blood stays true, regardless of their election chances,” Duncan said.

-- Seema Mehta

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Photo: Specter Tuesday in Pennsylvania. Credit: Getty Images.