Will Obama Play Keystone Kop?

Specter needs the president to clear the field

By Robert A. George
|  Thursday, May 28, 2009  |  Updated 10:54 AM EDT
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Can Arlen Specter get Barack Obama to come to his aid in the same way the president did for Kirsten Gillibrand? He may need it.

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Reports surfaced Wednesday that Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) is indeed planning on entering the Pennsylvania Senate primary to challenge incumbent and now-Democrat Arlen Specter. This will undoubtedly create a rather expensive and fractious contest. Political parties don't like these sort of races.

Indeed, New York just seemingly avoided one:  appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has discovered that it's good to have friends in high places. Gillibrand was expected to face a crowded field next year -- as she repeatedly abandoned her previously moderate positions on gun rights, gay marriage and immigration. Still, Gillibrand did well in raising money; the husband of her predecessor in the seat -- one Bill Clinton -- did a big fundraiser for her. Regardless, Rep. Steve Israel announced earlier this month that he was going to challenge Gillibrand.

Not so fast.

Within days of Israel's plans leaking, he dropped them -- citing a phone call from the president urging him to stay out.

Shortly after that, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer announced that he, too wouldn't run.

This is known in politics as "clearing the field." Usually, the heavy lifting is done by a party committee or -- in state races -- a powerful governor. New York has a Democratic governor. Powerful, he ain't. So, Obama steps in. This doesn't necessarily mean that no Democratic challenger will arise to take on Gillibrand; it just means that if one does, it will be a much weaker opponent than would have otherwise arisen (think gun-control activist Carolyn McCarthy of Long Island).

So, the question remains: will Specter ask Obama to intervene on his behalf? Will Obama call Sestak and implore him to step aside? Obviously, there are differences in the two states: this is likely Specter's last race, so Sestak could wait until the seat opens up in six years. Gillibrand is 43: If she wins -- can expect to hold onto the seat for a while. Then again, Sestak is no spring chicken. He may be in only his second House term, but the retired admiral is 59-years-old. He's not going to be around forever; he's thinking that if he doesn't do it now, it won't make sense to run for the Senate for the first time as a 66 year old.

As a Navy vet in Congress, he also provides Obama with a lot of cover on defense and other military matters (he's served in and visited Iraq several times).  Thus, Obama might be reticent to put the heavy hand on him the way he did with Steve Israel in New York.  Thus, Specter might have to fight this battle alone. 

Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.

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