Why is Joe Sestak Surging Over Arlen Specter? The Answer in One Day of Campaigning

** ADDS INFORMATION ON TUESDAY'S PRIMARY ** U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa, right, campaigns outside the Consol Energy Center construction site in downtown Pittsburgh, Monday, May 17, 2010. Sestak is in a close race in Tuesday's Democratic primary with Sen. Arlen Specter. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar
Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa, right, campaigns outside the Consol Energy Center construction site in downtown Pittsburgh, Monday, May 17, 2010.

PHILADELPHIA -- It was only one day in a long campaign, but it showed the sharp differences in style between upstart Joe Sestak and incumbent Arlen Specter - and may show why Sestak could dethrone the state's longest serving senator in tomorrow's Democratic primary.

Specter is the establishment - endorsed by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, among many others (Specter used to be part of the Republican establishment, switching his party affiliation last year after nearly 45 years as a member of the GOP).

On Friday, while picking up the endorsements of the black clergy in Philadelphia and the Fraternal Order of Police, he blasted his opponent as someone who can't deliver for the state and who's an absentee congressman.

"At least I vote," Specter said. "We're paid to vote, and he's missed 127 in this session of Congress."

While the slew of endorsements Specter has received would normally help lock down a sixth term for the 80-year-old, Sestak is taking full advantage of the anti-incumbent fever sweeping through the political world.

"This rising tide of anti-incumbency is viral," said Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "It's like a virus that has set on the body politic and in Pennsylvania, it's been a huge part of Sen. Specter's problem."

Sestak defines himself to voters in terms of his opponent.

"Hey, I'm Joe Sestak, the guy who's running against Arlen Specter," he says as he hands out campaign fliers at a check cashing store. He doesn't say: "I'm Joe Sestak and I'm running for the senate" or "I'm Joe Sestak and I could use your vote on Tuesday." As simply as possible, he's saying that he's the guy who's NOT the guy who's been in Washington for the past 30 years.

The polls have shown how effective this strategy is. Of the seven that have been taken over the past week, five show Sestak in the lead, although all but one was within the margin of error. Still, Sestak's momentum has been hard to ignore - two months ago, Specter was leading some polls by more than 20 points.

"This election is a referendum on how broken Washington is, and Sen. Specter is a poster child for that," Sestak said on Friday while working the crowd at LOVE Park.

Sestak himself has been in Washington for the past three years as a congressman, and his relative inexperience may be Specter's best hope to hang on to his seat.

"It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Joe Sestak will upset Sen. Specter," said Madonna. "He's resilient, he's tough, he's arguably the most effective campaigner in modern Pennsylvania history."

There is no doubt Specter has been an effective campaigner - you don't spend 30 years in the Senate without knowing how to win a primary.

But on Friday, it was Sestak who was doing most of the retail campaigning, making 11 stops around Philadelphia starting at 6:30am, handing out business cards, and even telling one man he encountered that he would try to help his wife who was arrested the night before (he was eventually passed off to a staffer).

Specter, by contrast, stood at a podium most of the day with the usual cast of political characters. While the importance of endorsements can't be taken lightly, if Sestak does pull off a win tomorrow, it may be because he was able to beat the one-time tireless campaigner at his own game.

More Coverage of the Pennsylvania Senate Campaign

Incumbents Fight for Their Political Lives
Joe Biden: Embattled Specter Still Our Candidate
Arlen Specter Mistakenly Thanks Pennsylvania "Republicans"
Joe Sestak Hammers Arlen Specter With Ad Showing Bush, Palin
Washington Unplugged: Specter Isn't Feeling the Love
Washington Unplugged: Will Specter Sing His Swan Song?