BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Retired police officer Daniel Lee is a staunchly conservative Republican and a strong believer in the right to carry guns.
"Though Pat Toomey is a good guy, Arlen Specter's done such a wonderful job for so many years," Lee, 52, said before a recent meeting of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association.
Toomey, a fiscal conservative, opposes abortion rights and has voted against raising the minimum wage and background checks for firearm purchasers at gun shows. Specter often enjoys support from labor unions and abortion rights activists, and he has clashed with the Republican White House over tax cuts and homeland security.
But while Toomey, 42, who has represented Bethlehem for six years, may be more consistently conservative, "he might have a closed mind on some subjects," Lee said. "There's no reason you can't be a little flexible."
The race is being carefully watched as Republicans' slim 51-seat majority in the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance. It also is considered a litmus test of the strength of the GOP's right wing by national conservatives who are pouring more than $1 million worth of contributions and attack ads into the state to help Toomey.
Specter, 74, seeking a fifth term, is campaigning like he's running for his political life. His politically moderate Senate voting record -- supporting abortion rights, scaling back the first round of President Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and scuttling Ronald Reagan's 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork -- has long angered conservatives.
Specter has leaned decidedly to the right as he approaches the primary, and reminds voters that he is backed by the White House and conservative fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (search).
Still, Toomey said he is confident he'll pull enough conservatives to the ballot box on April 27 to prevail. A low turnout would be good for him, since conservatives make up an estimated one-third of the state's 3.2 million Republican voters but generally outpoll moderates in primaries.
"There's no question that the conservative movement is energized and supporting me in this race," Toomey said recently in Chambersburg.
A recent statewide Keystone Poll, however, indicates Toomey cannot necessarily count on conservatives.
Forty-six percent of 145 conservative voters surveyed supported Specter, while 33 percent backed Toomey and 26 percent were undecided, the poll found. The poll carried a sampling-error margin of plus or minus 8 percentage points.
One hopeful poll for Toomey was commissioned by the Club For Growth (search), whose president, Stephen Moore (search), has described the congressman as the "next Ronald Reagan." The Washington-based conservative tax watchdog group is collecting an estimated $1 million in contributions for Toomey and is airing attack ads comparing Specter to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Specter has fought back with attack ads of his own. And according to the latest Federal Election Commission data available, he had raised $11.5 million by the end of the year, compared to Toomey's $2.5 million.
The winner will face Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel (search) in the Nov. 2 general election. The state has 3.6 million Democratic voters.
"We wouldn't agree with anything about Pat Toomey on the issues," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "But Arlen Specter's had 24 years in the Senate, and he can't give a straight answer on what his position is on a gay marriage amendment. He doesn't have any consistent position on tax cuts. His beliefs change with the political winds."
However, Specter touts his seniority to highlight the hundreds of millions of dollars he earmarks for Pennsylvania projects every year. Toomey, a fiscal hawk, derides Specter's spending habits as "pork" that bloats the federal deficit.