WASHINGTON - Voters rejected one of President Barack Obama's hand-picked candidates and forced another into a runoff, the latest sign that his political capital is slipping beneath a wave of anti-establishment anger.
Sen. Arlen Specter became the fourth Democrat in seven months to lose a high-profile race despite the president's active involvement, raising doubts about Obama's ability to help fellow Democrats in this November's elections.
The first three candidates fell to Republicans. But Specter's loss Tuesday to Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's Democratic senatorial primary cast doubts on Obama's influence and popularity even within his own party — and in a battleground state, no less.
Of course, it's possible that Democrats will fare better than expected this fall. And there's only so much that any president can do to help other candidates, especially in a non-presidential election year.
Still, Obama's poor record thus far could hurt his legislative agenda if Democratic lawmakers decide they need some distance from him as they seek re-election in what is shaping up as a pro-Republican year. Conversely, it might embolden Republican lawmakers and candidates who oppose him.
"We're licking our chops at running against President Obama," said Rand Paul, tea party candidate and victor in Kentucky's Republican primary for retiring GOP Sen. Jim Bunning's seat. Paul told CNN on Wednesday he'd relish Obama's campaigning on behalf of Democrat Jack Conway. Obama's agenda, Paul said, is "so far to the left, he's not popular in Kentucky."
Obama's track record also raises the question of whether he may be hurting candidates he supports by motivating his foes — such as tea party supporters — to vote. Though this month's AP-GfK Poll shows Americans split about evenly over how he's handling his job, those strongly disapproving outnumber people who strongly back him by 33 percent to 22 percent — not an enviable position for the president's party.
Sestak's victory over Specter is especially embarrassing, because he won by portraying himself and his supporters as being more faithful to the Democratic Party than were Specter and his backers — who included the president, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and other high-ranking party officials.
Creating another bruise for Obama and the Democratic establishment Tuesday, Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff in Arkansas' Democratic senatorial primary. Obama supports her bid for a third term, but he is not as closely associated with her campaign as he was with Specter's.
In previous months, Obama's endorsements and campaign appearances weren't enough to save then-Gov. Jon Corzine's re-election bid in New Jersey, Creigh Deeds' run for governor in Virginia or Martha Coakley's campaign in Massachusetts to keep the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat in Democratic hands.
In fairness, Deeds was an underdog from the start, and Corzine brought many problems on himself. But the Coakley loss to Republican Scott Brown was excruciating. She once was considered a shoo-in, and her defeat restored the Republicans' ability to block Democratic bills with Senate filibusters.
Unlike the Corzine, Deeds and Coakley races, Obama made no late-campaign appearances for Specter. But it will be hard for the president to distance himself from Specter's career-ending loss.
Obama campaigned for Specter last September in Philadelphia, where he said, "I love Arlen Specter." Specter used the clip in recent TV ads. Obama also e-mailed his supporters on Specter's behalf, and he was the first person Specter thanked in his concession speech.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native, made several appearances for Specter. Last week he told a Pittsburgh radio station, "Arlen is the Democratic candidate."
Moreover, Obama was central to an all-important deal with Specter that struck some Democratic voters as opportunistic at best.
Specter had been a Republican senator for 28 years, opposing countless Democratic bills and appointees even if he showed more independence than most lawmakers. Thirteen months ago, however, he concluded he could not win the GOP nomination for a sixth term against conservative Pat Toomey. He and top Democrats struck a deal.
Specter would become a Democrat, giving the party the crucial 60th Senate vote it needed to overcome Republican filibusters, which were frustrating the administration. In exchange, Obama, Biden, Rendell and the entire Democratic hierarchy agreed to support Specter's 2010 re-election, including efforts to clear his way to the party's nomination.
The losers in the deal were any longtime Democrats who aspired to the U.S. Senate. They essentially were told to step aside for an 80-year-old longtime Republican. Pennsylvania's Democratic voters were asked to concur.
Sestak, a former Navy vice admiral first elected to the House in 2006, refused to go along. He plugged away without help from the state or national party. A few weeks ago he trailed Specter by about 20 percentage points in polls of likely Democratic voters.
But Sestak caught fire in the closing days, partly through a TV ad showing Specter campaigning enthusiastically with then-President George W. Bush, who remains deeply unpopular with many Democratic primary voters.
In the past few weeks, the White House has played down Obama's role in the Tuesday primaries, and he spent Election Day in Ohio talking about the economy.
"At some point, you feel like we've done what we can do," senior White House adviser David Axelrod told The Associated Press in an interview. "We do have other stuff going on," he said.
Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist and vice president of the group Third Way, said he doubts that Democratic lawmakers will panic over Obama's inability to help Specter to a victory.
"Presidents have coattails when their names are on the ballot," Bennett said, and that can't happen for Obama until 2012.
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