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A Purge in Pennsylvania

Strange are the ways of zealots. Iraq is in flames, global terrorism is on the rise, President Bush’s 9/11 alibi is in tatters, and yet one of the greatest threats to Bush’s hold on power comes at the moment from — of all things — a Republican congressman who is one of the president’s most loyal House allies.

The troublesome lawmaker is Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, a conservative ideologue who’s running for Senate. He faces four-term incumbent Arlen Specter, one of the Senate’s most moderate Republicans, in next Tuesday’s GOP primary. It’s the only primary challenge to a Senate incumbent this year. In the past three months Toomey, 43, has managed to close a 20-point-plus lead and is now neck and neck with Specter, 74, a crusty former prosecutor who happens to be one of just three Jewish Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Bush faces a twofold danger. A Toomey win on Tuesday could drive moderate Republican voters in November to the Democratic candidate, Rep. Joe Hoeffel of suburban Philadelphia. That would threaten the GOP’s one-seat hold on the Senate. More than that, a defection of moderates could dash Bush’s own hopes of winning Pennsylvania, a key swing state that Al Gore carried by a hair in 2000.

The reason for Toomey’s surge is a massive flood of political and financial support from right-wing activists around the country, who don’t like Specter’s moderate record on abortion, church-state separation, poverty and more. Mainstream Republican journals like the National Review and the Weekly Standard can barely conceal their distaste for the “liberal” Specter, who is repeatedly likened to Ted Kennedy.

The GOP establishment was slow to rouse itself, but now all the state’s congressional Republicans have endorsed Specter. Bush has campaigned with the senator twice. Still, the momentum appears to be with Toomey.

Given the stakes next fall, Democrats ought to be gloating. Oddly, they’re not. A parade of prominent liberals has, to the delight of Specter-bashers, lined up to support the incumbent, including Alan Dershowitz, 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste and even George Soros. One union, the Transportation Communications International Union, actually asked its members to register as Republicans so they could vote for Specter in the primary.

Some of this is loyalty to a friend, but there’s a larger issue at stake. Conservative leaders openly declare that Specter is just the opening target in their jihad against Republican moderates. Next in line are Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, George Voinovich of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine. If the far right succeeds in its larger goal of purging the GOP of its moderate wing, our national debate will only grow uglier and more poisonously divisive. All Americans, Democrat and Republican alike, will be the losers.

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