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White House lobbying for more palatable Republican in Senate primaries | (KRT) Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's win in Tuesday's Republican primary was a triumph for President Bush's election year image.

The moderate senator's narrow victory over conservative Rep. Pat Toomey was crucial to Bush partly because Specter is considered electable - an important quality in a year when a single Senate race could decide who controls the chamber next year.

But it also mattered because Specter has the kind of compassionate, flexible persona Bush wants and needs to strut - even though Specter opposes Bush on certain fundamentals, such as abortion. The more Bush is seen that way, the feeling goes, the better he will do among voters in swing states like Pennsylvania.

"Having Republicans unified will not be enough in November," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "We have to attract independents and Democrats."

Specter has a history of doing that, and that's why the White House took the unusual step of involving itself and its considerable political muscle in intraparty battles like this one.

The rule is usually to stay out of such scraps, figuring that the loser will be so sore his backers will stay home in November or defect to the other side, thus hurting the nominee as well as the president.

The White House is ignoring that advice and instead has asserted itself in a number of intraparty Senate fights in states likely to decide the presidential race this year - not to mention tip the balance in the Senate.

It urged Cabinet secretary Mel Martinez to run in Florida against conservative former Rep. Bill McCollum and others. It has pushed incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska as she battles former State Senate President Mike Miller.

The White House is believed to be hoping for a win by the more charismatic Peter Coors, chairman of the brewing company, against former Rep. Bob Schaffer in the race for a suddenly open seat in Colorado, and is said to be behind the bid of Rep. George Nethercutt in Washington, who is battling college professor and former King County (Seattle) GOP Chairman Reed Davis, who calls himself a "common-sense conservative."

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine, D-N.J., understands why the GOP wants the candidates with the softer images.

Wins by conservatives, Corzine said, "allow us to use the term `radical right' with more credibility." That not only helps likely nominee John Kerry, but boosts the Democratic Senate candidate.

While few dispute that logic, there is some risk to Republicans if conservatives keep getting thrashed. Will supporters of Toomey, as well as backers of McCollum, Schaffer and other conservatives - stay home in November?

The Club for Growth, a conservative group, spent an estimated $2 million to topple Specter, but its president, Stephen Moore, said, "We have no hesitation in endorsing Arlen Specter for Senate."

Other Republicans saw the same pattern emerging elsewhere.

"If someone's a likely voter, they're a likely voter. They don't make a calculated decision to penalize a candidate," said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who had Bush's backing in his own primary fight two years ago and wound up winning the general election against a tough Democratic foe.

Such party rifts are usually long forgotten by the fall, and even if they are not, people tend to distinguish between the Senate and the presidential candidate.

"You're going to have a motivated electorate" because Republican loyalists dislike Kerry, said Michael Birkner, professor of history at Gettysburg College. For Bush, he and others said, a win by the likes of Specter, Coors, Martinez or Nethercutt is a plus.

If nothing else, "it's to the advantage of the White House to have the more electable candidate running," said Andrew Busch, associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

Candidates who have survived bruising primary battles are well-tested and in better shape to go into the general election, he argued. And chances are they have already engaged constituencies the White House badly wants, as Specter is now primed to do.

Florida is a considered a key test of how the more moderate candidate can help. Martinez, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, was recruited by political director Karl Rove partly because he would help woo the state's Cuban American and Hispanic vote.

Martinez, the first Cuban American Cabinet member in U.S. history, also has strong ties to the Orlando area and its growing Puerto Rican population.

"Martinez brings a lot to the table," said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "And if he loses, I don't see the president hurt. That's an entirely different race."

There is one enormous risk for Bush, in Florida and elsewhere, and that's if the more conservative candidate wins and is unapologetic about his views.

If Specter had lost, for instance, and Democratic Senate nominee Joe Hoeffel anointed himself the next Specter, "people would like that message," said Birkner.

Remember, the experts said, most people are not yet paying attention to the presidential race. They know their hometown candidates better, and if that candidate is not to their liking, it could rub off on Bush - and vice versa.

"It helps the president to have people like Arlen Specter on the ticket," said Sarah Resnick, spokeswoman for the Main Street Individual Fund, a GOP-leaning political group. "It will pull out the moderate votes."

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© 2004, Hartford Courant Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services