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Analysis: Specter The Pragmatist

Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' Political Director.

Sen. Arlen Specter's jilted former party is pushing the talking point that his switch to the Democratic Party is "an act of self-preservation."

"[H]is decision ... was a personal decision, limited to his Republican primary prospects in Pennsylvania. Nothing more and nothing less," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., the chairman of the National Senatorial Congressional Committee.

Not to buy into the spin, but they're actually fairly accurate. And Specter is fully aware of that fact.

"I have traveled the state and surveyed the sentiments of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and public opinion polls, observed other public opinion polls and have found that the prospects for
winning a Republican primary are bleak," Specter told reporters on Capitol Hill this afternoon.

Specter, who squeaked past an intraparty challenge from former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in 2004, was facing the conservative Toomey again. And recent polls showed him being trounced by Toomey in the Republican primary next year.

Always a thorn in the Republican Party's side, Specter has been increasingly mistrusted by Republicans, especially at home in Pennsylvania. His views on abortion, stem cell research, the 2007 troop "surge" in Iraq and, most recently, President Obama's economic stimulus plan have found him at odds with the rest of his party.

And Specter today cited the stimulus vote as the impetus for his switch.

But he also clearly, and repeatedly, admitted that it was more than him being an independent voice that was reason for becoming a Democrat. It was to save his political career.

"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate -- not prepared to have that record decided by that jury, the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said.

Specter saw what has happened to other moderate Republicans in recent elections and doesn't want to be the next one to go down fighting against a conservative challenger.

"[O]ne of [Toomey's] principal advisers said, 'We don't care about stage two. Stage one, we want to beat Arlen Specter. We'll worry about stage two later.' They don't make any bones about
their willingness to lose the general election if they can purify the party," said Specter. "And for the people who are Republicans that just sit by and allow them to continue to dominate the party ... there ought to be a rebellion. There ought to be an uprising."

Specter, who's been in the Senate for 29 years, has seen the polls and the political landscape in his state, especially the surge in Democratic registration thanks to the high-profile presidential primary there last year.

And Specter realizes that if he's to continue as a senator, his best bet is to become a Democrat.

He now has Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on his side; Reid will recognize Specter's seniority and treat him as if he's been a Democrat his entire Senate career.

Specter said that Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa., has suggested getting his party's leaders together in Washington to formalize a Specter endorsement. If that happened, that would put to rest any serious Democratic intraparty challenge against Specter.

And, perhaps most importantly, President Obama told him today that he'll campaign and raise money for him next year.

Specter needed then-popular George W. Bush to help him win the Republican primary and the general election in 2004. Now, he's receiving the seal of approval from an even more popular incumbent president in a state that was won easily by Mr. Obama in November.

So, even though he has found himself "increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party," Specter knows that the only thing he has to lose by not switching is his political livelihood.

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