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Republicans in Maryland and nationally are groping for a direction for their party. They're trying to figure out how to stay true to core values, while attracting enough support from moderate and independent voters to build a majority.

The effort is already creating friction between those who say there are some principles that can't be abandoned and those want to make the party's tent even bigger.

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But Democrats aren't sitting pat as Republicans regroup. They're looking to build on their recent gains, maintain momentum and deliver a knock-out blow to the their rivals, at least in the Northeast.

With Republican members of congress a rare breed in the region (the number is down to one in Maryland), Democarts now have one of the last holdouts in their sights. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, 78, could face a strong challenge if and when he decides to seek re-election in 2010. One of the intriguing names in the mix: Chris Matthews of MSNBC, who would run as a Democrat. Our Tribune Co. colleague Josh Drobnyk of the Morning Call in Allentown, Penn., has put together a fine account of the political winds blowing just to the north of us. By Josh Drobnyk

Call Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Northeast's dwindling cast of Senate Republicans has Democrats circling U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's seat in Pennsylvania, convinced the party is well-positioned to make a competitive race out of the 2010 election.

Leading the pack of prospects — at least in celebrity — is Chris Matthews, the MSNBC "Hardball" host and former Capitol Hill Democratic staffer. The Philadelphia native has been toying with a run for months, and this week sat down with Pennsylvania Democrats to discuss the prospect of taking on the five-term Republican.

Others considered in the mix include U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County, who is sitting on $3 million in campaign funds; state Rep. Josh Shapiro of Montgomery County; and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a two-term Philadelphia area lawmaker who has moved up quickly on the Hill and has a Rolodex full of prospective donors from her unsuccessful 2000 Senate run. "We'll see," she said about a possible repeat bid in a recent interview.

"There are a lot of compelling reasons why serious Democrats would aspire to run in 2010," said Pennsylvania Democratic Committee Chairman T.J. Rooney, who had drinks with Chris Matthews in Washington on Monday and said the 62-year-old MSNBC star was in Pennsylvania earlier in the day meeting with other Democratic leaders.

"You look at what has gone on in this state in the past six or seven years and you think nothing is out of reach," Rooney said.

Since 2002, Pennsylvania Democrats have grabbed the gubernatorial mansion, dethroned the Senate's No. 3 Republican, Rick Santorum, and picked up five U.S. House seats. But just as relevant to the party's optimism is what has happened outside of the state. The Northeast lost nearly half its slate of Senate Republicans in the previous two elections, leaving Specter with three GOP colleagues from the eight most northeastern states — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

This month's Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter that handicaps races, cast Specter as among the four most vulnerable senators of the 35 up for re-election in two years.

"He is increasingly isolated from his party as a Republican in a northeastern sea of blue," said Hershey-based pollster Michael Young.

Matthews, who didn't respond to a request for comment, has coyly dismissed questions about a run in recent months as he lays the groundwork behind the scenes. His contract with MSNBC expires in June.

If it all sounds too depressing for Specter, his approval rating in Pennsylvania and his campaign coffers inspire confidence.

Nearly six in 10 Pennsylvanians said in an August Quinnipiac University poll that they approve of Specter's job performance — higher than the ratings for Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Bob Casey Jr., both Democrats. The former Philadelphia district attorney has raised $6 million for his re-election run in the past two years, more than any of his colleagues during the period. He has made clear, despite a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease this year at age 78, that he plans to battle for a sixth term.

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"Whoever my opponent is, I will be ready," Specter said in an interview earlier this year.

His hefty haul is all the more significant heading into 2010 because Senate candidates will be competing for cash with gubernatorial hopefuls in Pennsylvania.

"When you look beyond the trends, you see a much more mixed picture," Young said. "I don't see him particularly endangered any more than he has been in the past."

Previous contests, though, have rarely been easy for Specter. In three of his five general election victories, he won with less than 53 percent of the vote.

Perhaps his toughest fight came during the primary contest in 2004 against Lehigh Valley congressman Pat Toomey, who finished within 2 percentage points of Specter and forced the pro-abortion rights senator to burnish his conservative credentials.

Toomey, president of the anti-tax group the Club for Growth, has left the door open to a repeat run in 2010. He argues that Specter is in a more vulnerable position than he was four years ago in part because of the tens of thousands of Republicans who changed their registration this year to participate in the Democratic primary.

In the four Philadelphia suburban counties, a region where Specter has traditionally performed well, Republicans have lost more than 61,000 registered voters in the last four years, a shift Toomey contends would help a more conservative opponent in a primary.

"A very substantial segment of his base left the party," Toomey said. "If he ends up facing a credible, well-financed conservative in a primary, I'm very confident he will lose."

But Young said he suspects a primary battle poses less of a threat to Specter than it did four years ago because "the Republican Party has been weakened" and conservatives are "in retrenchment."

Specter has said he's anticipating both a challenge from the right and the left.

"I've adopted Satchel Paige's philosophy for a long time," he said earlier this year. "Never look over your shoulder. Somebody may be gaining on you.'"

jdrobnyk@tribune.com

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