Vice President Joe Biden urged Pennsylvania Democrats on Friday to return Arlen Specter to the Senate, calling the Republican-turned-Democrat a valuable White House ally on priorities like health care and the economic stimulus.
Returning to his native northeastern Pennsylvania for the first time since taking office, Biden lauded Specter's experience and "unflinching support for the workers of Pennsylvania."
"This is a man who has as much energy, as much passion, as strong a commitment to ending the injustices that surround us, as anyone I've ever known," he said.
Specter faces a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral, who has denounced an ad aired by Specter this week that claimed he was relieved of duty "for creating a poor command climate."
Sestak asked Biden to disavow the ad, comparing it to attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against Sen. John Kerry in his challenge to President George W. Bush in 2004.
Biden did not address the controversy in his remarks at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. Instead, he told about 250 supporters gathered inside a hangar that Specter — whom he called "my single best friend in the United States Congress" — has been a strong advocate for Pennsylvania.
The five-term senator bolted the GOP last spring after acknowledging his changes of winning the Republican nomination against conservative Pat Toomey were slim. A recent poll showed Toomey beating Specter in a hypothetical general election matchup.
Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware, said he'd asked Specter many times over the years to switch parties.
"His argument used to be, 'I agree with you, Joe, but somebody's gotta change the other party. There's got to be change in the other party,'" Biden said.
Now that Specter is a Democrat, Biden said, "Pennsylvania's better off, the country's better off, and selfishly, Barack Obama and Joe Biden are better off in having a chance to bring about the kind of change in America we think we need."
Sestak, a second-term congressman and retired vice admiral from suburban Philadelphia, attacks Specter as lacking conviction in Democratic principles.
"Specter is a Democrat only because he was challenged by a tough Republican opponent," said Sestak spokesman Jonathon Dworkin. "He votes Democratic only because he was challenged by Joe Sestak. He casts whatever vote he thinks will help him keep his own job — that's not loyalty, except to oneself."
About 20 Sestak supporters, most of them veterans, showed up outside the rally to denounce what they called a malicious attack ad by Specter.
First aired Tuesday, the ad asserts that Sestak was "relieved of duty in the Navy for creating a poor command climate," a term for morale. It cited an August 2005 report in the Navy Times.
Sestak asked Biden in a letter Thursday to repudiate the ad, writing: "I understand that Arlen Specter is your longtime colleague and close personal friend, but I call on you to disavow these lies and demand that they be stopped immediately."
Sestak supporters delivered the letter to Biden's staff Friday.
"He's defacing a veteran. And if he's defacing that veteran, he's defacing me as a veteran as well, and I don't take kindly to that," said John Bury, 74, a retired Navy veteran who served four tours of duty in Vietnam.
Speaking to reporters after the rally, Specter stood by the ad.
"When Congressman Sestak ran a commercial touting his military service, he raised the issue about exactly what happened. And the facts are, as shown by the Navy Times, that he was let go for poor command climate," said Specter, who also criticized Sestak for missing scores of votes in Congress. "I think the voters are entitled to know the whole truth."
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