Anatomy of Politics as Usual: Sestak’s touchy relationship with the White House

Democratic Representative Joe Sestak can look forward to a stumping tour with President Obama today, but the White House hasn't always offered such full-throated support for the Pennsylvania congressman's Senate run. For several months this year the White House evaded—then later admitted—allegations that the administration had offered Sestak an Executive Branch position to keep him from running in the May 18 Democratic primary against incumbent Arlen Specter.

The supposed job offer first came to light in a local Pennsylvania news interview with Sestak in February and soon became a hot topic in the White House press room, but Press Secretary Robert Gibbs routinely deflected the question in briefings:

February 23, 2010: "I have seen some stuff that [Sestak] said, but I have not looked into this."

March 1, 2010: "I have not made any progress on that... I was remiss on this and I apologize... There's not much to follow up on. Let me check into that."

March 9, 2010: "I don't have the update with me but let me check and see if I do have anything."

March 12, 2010: "I don't have any more information on that."

March 16, 2010: "Look, I've talked to several people in the White House, I've talked to people that have talked to others in the White House. I'm told that whatever conversations have been had are not problematic. I think Congressman Sestak has discussed that this is - whatever happened is in the past, and he's focused on his primary election."

Sestak won the primary handily, beating Specter by an eight-point margin. It was only after Sestak proved victorious—and after more pressure from the Press Corps—that the White House came clean on its role in a Sestak job offer, saying in a May 28 statement, "[A]s the Congressman has publicly and accurately stated, options for Executive Branch service were raised with him."

The administration's intention, the statement read, was to "avoid a divisive Senate primary." But at least some Specter supporters switched to back his former opponent—Sestak saw an early boost from his primary win, leading Republican opponent Pat Toomey by four percent among likely voters in a May 21 Rasmussen poll.

These overtures apparently came not from within the White House, but rather from an influential operative: "White House staff did not discuss these options with Congressman Sestak. The White House Chief of Staff enlisted the support of former President Clinton who agreed to raise with Congressman Sestak options of service on a Presidential or other Senior Executive Branch Advisory Board. Congressman Sestak declined the suggested alternatives, remaining committed to his Senate candidacy," the statement read.

Clinton did not confirm whether he had met with or spoken to Sestak at all regarding the job offer, and he denied any role in trying to convince Sestak to end his Senate candidacy. "I didn't try to get him out of the race... In fact, I wasn't even accused of that," Clinton told a local news reporter following a rally at which he campaigned for Sestak August 10. Quite the opposite, it seems. Sestak said in a cable news interview September 2 that his campaign was Clinton's "highest priority," and the former president appeared with Sestak at a rally last week.

Sestak campaign spokesman Jonathan Dworkin told Foxnews.com after the primary victory that his candidate "would be proud to stand with the president and vice president." He'll get that chance today, hosting President Obama at a rally in Philadelphia this evening. Vice President Biden stumped with the congressman last week.

The apparent change of heart from the White House comes as Democrats nationwide struggle at the polls. A recent Fox News survey shows Sestak lagging six points behind former congressman Toomey with six weeks to go before Election Day.