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Stand on Anti-gay Remark Could Cost Specter Support

An erstwhile ally of Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter says the moderate lawmaker has damaged his support among gay and progressive voters.

Malcolm Lazin, a gay Republican and executive director of Philadelphia’s Equality Forum, said this damage is the result of the senator’s ringing defense of fellow Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum after Santorum made what many construed as anti-gay remarks last month.

“I have known Rick Santorum for the better part of two decades,” Specter said in a statement, “and I can say with certainty he is not a bigot.”

“The senator has undermined his credibility with [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] voters by stating that Senator Santorum is not a bigot,” Lazin wrote in an e-mail message to the Forward. “This may be akin to his position on Anita Hill as a defining moment with [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] voters.”

Specter, the senior Jewish Republican in Congress, went to bat for his fellow Pennsylvanian after Santorum brought down a storm of opprobrium for remarks he made to a reporter in which he grouped homosexual acts with bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery as acts that “undermine the fabric of our society.” Regarding a Supreme Court case dealing with same-sex sodomy laws, Santorum told the Associated Press: “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery.”

Facing a primary next April from a conservative Republican challenger, Rep. Pat Toomey, Specter appeared to be covering his right flank by defending Santorum, Republican and Democratic observers said.

The move comes after a similar action by Specter in January, when he defended another Republican colleague, then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott, when Lott created a controversy by lauding the segregationist 1948 presidential candidacy of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond.

Noting that “Specter has had longstanding commitment to civil rights,” Lazin wrote that the senator’s present position “appears to compromise that principled stand… [and] to put political pragmatism over principle. This could hurt him both with [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] voters and progressives in the general election. While his friends could accept his not calling for Senator Santorum to step down from his leadership post, they would have expected that he would have called Senator Santorum’s statements for what they are — patent and unacceptable homophobia.”

Specter deepened gay suspicion of him when, in an interview with The New York Times, he responded to a question about Santorum’s future electoral prospects by attacking Santorum’s critics.

“Washington is a town filled with cannibals,” the Times quoted Specter as saying. “The cannibals devoured Trent Lott without cause. If the cannibals are after you, you are in deep trouble.”

But in a move that appeared calculated to curry favor with gay voters, Specter on May 1 reintroduced hate crimes legislation in the Senate. That move was met by some with cynicism.

“It seemed too convenient,” said a gay Philadelphia Democratic activist, Mike Marsico. “He’s always schizo when it comes to politics,” Marsico said. “He’ll do one thing for the right, then he’ll do something to make sure his liberal support remains complacent.”

Marsico said gay activists would seek to use Specter’s defense of Santorum against him: “He will be called to the carpet for his support of Santorum by us next year.”

Observers said, however, that Specter would likely win his primary and had little to fear from Democrats in the 2004 general election.

Pennsylvania pollster G. Terry Madonna rates Democratic chances of taking Specter’s seat in 2004 as “dismal.” “It’s hard to get traction against him. In polls we’ve done, he looks pretty safe. If others didn’t think that, they’d be climbing out of the woodwork to run against him.”

Specter did not respond to a request for comment.

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