PITTSBURGH — In 1994, a young two-term congressman asked U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter to support his bid for the GOP nomination against Sen. Harris Wofford, the Democrat who had succeeded Sen. John Heinz after his death in an air crash.
No, Mr. Specter told Rick Santorum. Then a Republican, Mr. Specter was interested in a pro-choice woman for the spot. He recalls he tried to recruit Julie Eisenhower, the daughter of President Richard Nixon and wife of David Eisenhower, the grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower. But she, like several other women he sounded out, was not interested.
So, Mr. Specter found himself supporting the conservative firebrand from the Pittsburgh suburbs, a different kind of Republican than he'd hoped for. But from their contrasting perspectives, the two went on to form a fruitful partnership in the interest of the state they represented. In last week's Arizona debate, and throughout his presidential campaign, however, those ties have come back to haunt Mr. Santorum.
Pressed by Mitt Romney in Mesa, Mr. Santorum repeated the explanation that he'd backed Mr. Specter against conservative challenger Pat Toomey in 2004 in exchange for the senator's promise to back President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. It's an explanation that he's offered before. As he did on those prior occasions, Mr. Specter denied that such a conversation ever took place. Mr. Santorum had made a similar statement about the 2004 race, and the former Republican had disputed it during his unsuccessful fight for the Democratic nomination against then Rep. Joe Sestak in 2010.
"The facts are that we never had such a conversation," Mr. Specter said on Friday. "It was assumed that he would support me, as I had supported him.''
Such an assumption would be reasonable in light of their collegial relationship in the Senate.
After Mr. Santorum won the 1994 GOP nomination without Mr. Specter's support, "in the general [election] I broke my back for him,'' Mr. Specter recalled.
Mr. Santorum would return the favor in 1995, when Mr. Specter launched a short-lived bid for the GOP nomination for president. The freshman senator backed his Pennsylvania colleague over several GOP candidates more ideologically in accord with his conservative views. The Specter White House candidacy was so brief that the Santorum alliance attracted little attention. And it was considered unremarkable when Mr. Santorum backed his 1998 re-election and then, when Mr. Specter supported his colleague for a second term in 2000.
But Mr. Santorum sparked the conservative ire that still endures when he lined up behind Mr. Specter again in 2004 when Mr. Toomey first tried to capture the Senate seat he would win six years later.
In the context of his current national campaign and the increasingly conservative drift of the Republican Party, the mere fact that he had backed the future Democrat — one who would cast crucial votes for the Obama Administration's stimulus and health care measures — was enough cause for criticism. But for some Pennsylvania conservatives, the reaction is deeper. One current Pennsylvania officeholder, who did not want to be quoted criticizing a fellow Republican, recalled that Mr. Santorum's backing of Mr. Specter was more than a pro forma endorsement, that he worked strenuously to squelch the Toomey bid. Every bit of help was crucial, as Mr. Specter managed to hold on to the GOP nomination by the narrowest of margins — 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.
Mr. Toomey, who would win the seat in 2010 after driving Mr. Specter out of the GOP, says he has moved on. "For me, the Specter race of 2004 is really ancient history," he said in an interview with National Review Online. "I think Santorum made a mistake … But I got over that a long time ago. I actually campaigned for Rick Santorum in 2006."
Mr. Santorum faced his first firestorm on the subject that day after the 2004 election. That morning, Mr. Specter took a rhetorical victory lap in a press conference at Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel. Answering one question, he observed that any Supreme Court nominee inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade would have a difficult time being confirmed. In his forthcoming memoir, Life Among the Cannibals, Mr. Specter notes he believed that he was merely stating the obvious. But many conservative Republicans saw the statement as an affront to a president who, like Mr. Santorum, had been willing to ignore ideological differences in campaigning for his re-election.
Mr. Specter suddenly faced a new campaign, this one among his GOP colleagues, as he struggled to hold onto the chairman's gavel on the Judiciary Committee. The storm of opposition to Mr. Specter buffeted Mr. Santorum as well. "It was very heavy,'' Mr. Santorum said in a 2004 interview. "We got over 10,000 calls, 99 percent in opposition.''
Mr. Specter would eventually prevail, retaining his coveted chairman's spot, he said, after assuring colleagues that he would not apply any litmus test to judicial nominees.
In an interview at the time, Mr. Santorum mentioned other concerns as the chief factors in his support for Mr. Specter. The junior senator was Mr. Bush's Pennsylvania presidential campaign manager that year in a state that Mr. Bush had lost narrowly to Vice President Al Gore four years earlier. And, going into the race, he and Mr. Specter were members of a slim GOP majority in the Senate.
Mr. Specter's political base was in a part of the state that was very much in the balance that year, the Philadelphia suburbs with many fiscally conservative but socially more moderate Republican voters. The presence of the pro-choice incumbent on those southeastern Pennsylvania ballots was regarded as an advantage for a president. The day before Mr. Toomey announced his first Senate bid, Mr. Specter recalls in his memoir, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card joined him in a press conference and fund-raiser in the conservative's Lehigh Valley district.
"I got heavy support from the entire Republican establishment, beginning with President George W. Bush,'' Mr. Specter wrote. "Santorum … proved vital, lending his conservative credibility.''
Pennsylvania again eluded Mr. Bush in 2004, but Mr. Santorum was among several analysts who argued that the resources that Democratic nominee John Kerry was forced to devote to the state diluted the Democratic effort in next-door Ohio, helping Mr. Bush narrowly secure a state that proved essential to his re-election. Mr. Santorum and Mr. Specter, meanwhile, took their seats among a 55-member Republican majority. In the previous Congress, the GOP had held a bare majority of 51.
"We had a game plan," Mr. Santorum said, defending his Specter support in the 2004 interview. "And part of that was not to create an open [Senate] seat in Pennsylvania. … You can argue with my tactics … but you can't argue with the results."
The conservative commentator Glenn Beck asked Mr. Santorum Friday to respond to Mr. Specter's denial of a deal on judicial nominees. The senator again stood by his account of a deal on judicial support, an explanation somewhat different than the one he offered at the time.
"All I would say is the proof is in the pudding," Mr. Santorum said in a response quoted in The Hill newspaper. "Arlen Specter stood up and defended [Samuel] Alito and [John] Roberts every moment they were attacked. He was the first one out there defending them, doing exactly what he said he was going to do, which is work as chairman of the committee."
Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is the politics editor of the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: email@example.com.