Specter's unlikely appeal underscores the potency of abortion politics in Pennsylvania when two Republicans with opposing views meet in a primary.
Toomey has spent more than a year courting the antiabortion community to win the April 27 primary. At the same time, Specter has attempted to neutralize the issue by casting his opponent as an opportunist with an inconsistent record on abortion.
"There are a few truly emotional issues that drive voters, that bring them to the polls, and abortion is one of them," said Daniel Shea, director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. "Voters who are concerned about abortion will turn out. That is certainly part of Toomey's strategy."
In a close race, locking in the antiabortion vote could prove vital. About 30 percent of state Republicans oppose abortion, according to poll data from Franklin and Marshall College.
As a longtime dynamic of state politics, candidates have tried to channel antiabortion fervor into wins, and the legislature through the early 1990s put Pennsylvania at the center of the national debate by establishing parental consent for minors and a 24-hour waiting period for all women.
Specter usually cannot get by the primary season without first facing an antiabortion candidates. He beats them easily.
Yet none was considered as formidable as Toomey, a well-funded, multi-issue candidate. Activists have organized phone banks, church voter guides, and direct mail. A few groups urged members to switch parties.
"Please understand that we are not asking you to do this to benefit the Republican party, but because we see an opportunity to defeat a powerful pro-abortion Republican," the People Concerned for the Unborn Child in Western Pennsylvania wrote in a winter newsletter.
Toomey, who has criticized Specter for employing similar tactics through a labor union, said last week that he was not aware of their efforts.
Abortion opponents want Specter gone because, if reelected, he would lead the Senate Judiciary Committee. The chairmanship would give him heightened influence over confirming judges for the federal bench, including the U.S. Supreme Court, which could have vacancies in the next six years.
Activists haven't forgotten Specter's 1987 vote that sank conservative U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Or his efforts in the 1990s to strip the antiabortion plank from the Republican platform. Or his 1996 presidential campaign built on his identity as an abortion-rights candidate. "He should be retiring," scoffed Mary Lou Gartner, secretary of LIFEPAC of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Specter, 74, says he personally opposes abortion but says he believes it is not a matter for government. He cannot change a 24-year record, so he has charged Toomey with double-talking. Specter put up ads last week stressing his rival's "flip-flop." (Toomey responded yesterday with a TV ad in which he says, "I am proudly pro-life.") Earlier in the campaign, Specter circulated a memo among Republicans that made the same impression.
Here is the gist of it: Toomey started his career declining to discuss the issue, then he supported abortion rights during the early stages of pregnancy, then he came out against the procedure except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the mother.
"He has blown with the wind," Specter said at a debate early this month.
Specter wants to demobilize Toomey's antiabortion base, said Stephen K. Medvic, a political analyst with Franklin and Marshall College. "What he is really saying is, 'This is a guy you don't want to go to the mat for, he is not a true believer,' " Medvic said.
Toomey has traveled the state explaining his record as an evolution of thought that should be accepted, not condemned.
"After a lot of thought, reflection, prayer and the birth of my first daughter" in 2000, Toomey said at the debate, "I came to realize the only right position for me would be to have the same position as President Bush and [Sen.] Rick Santorum - life begins at the moment of conception and from that point on, it needs to be protected."
Toomey, 42, a Lehigh Valley resident who represents part of Montgomery County, said he would prefer to confirm judges who oppose abortion but would not use a litmus test.
His story convinced Mary Wurtz, 36, an Abington resident who heard him at a Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania dinner last November.
"He grabbed me because he changed his mind," she said last week as she staffed a Toomey phone bank in Oreland with abortion opponents.
The Republican winner will face U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel, a Montgomery County Democrat who favors abortion rights. Toomey's rating from the National Right to Life Committee was 90 percent in 1999-2000, 100 percent in 2001-02, and 90 percent since 2003. Specter hit 22 percent in 1999-2000, zero in 2001-02, and 64 percent since then.
The spike in Specter's rating - partly because of his votes to ban a procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion - has not discouraged the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition.
The Washington group is spending $450,000 for Specter, including 200,000 mailings now going to moderate Republicans, said Jennifer Blei Stockman, the national cochair.
As for Freind, who is supporting Toomey, he said he sees Specter taking the challenger seriously. Which is why Freind - a guy who authored antiabortion legislation for 16 years - says he believes he was asked for support.
"Arlen never overlooks anything," said Freind, who has known Specter for 30 years and backed him until the Bork vote. "He will do everything he can to make sure he wins reelection."
Contact staff writer Carrie Budoff at 610-313-8211 or email@example.com.