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Toomey Works to Shed ‘Far Out’ Label

Most Washington, D.C., insiders know former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) as a stalwart conservative.

As the former president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, Toomey often made it his mission to defeat Republican Members who did not meet his group’s conservative standards on spending.

But ever since Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) announced seven months ago that he was switching parties to run for re-election as a Democrat, Toomey has been forced to recast himself as more of a centrist as he prepares for the 2010 general election.

“I think that’s probably a calculated move on his part,” said former Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.), who supports Toomey’s bid. “And if you want to get elected in Pennsylvania, you have to move to the middle. But I hope he doesn’t move too far to the middle because this country needs a fiscal conservative.”

Toomey surprised many conservatives when he announced in early August that he was supporting President Barack Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. Toomey’s campaign also issued a press release in late September praising Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for supporting charter schools and merit-based pay for teachers.

“President Obama and Secretary Duncan deserve credit for promoting such an important part of education reform in this country,” Toomey said in the statement.

When asked about his political views in early August by MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, Toomey replied: “I’m in the center-right.”

Toomey ran to the right of Specter when he challenged him in the 2004 GOP primary. Specter defeated him by a slim 4-point margin with the help of the slogan, “Pat Toomey: Not far right, just far out.”

“I think Pat maybe learned a little bit of a lesson there,” southeastern Pennsylvania GOP consultant John McNichol said. “I don’t think it makes him any more conservative across the spectrum, but I think he’s appropriately moved towards the fiscal issues.”

McNichol and other Republican operatives said they do not think Toomey has shifted his positions on anything since the 2004 campaign, but instead he has made a conscious choice to focus more on economic issues in the Senate campaign.

“He’s evolving and maturing,” McNichol added. “Same guy, same principles. I just think he understands now that he’s got to stay focused because it’s about electability.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), known as a conservative icon in the state, lost re-election by 18 points in 2006 in part because the general electorate thought he was too far to the right. Santorum, who supported Specter in the 2004 primary, announced on his radio show that he is supporting Toomey’s bid. However, several Pennsylvania Republicans said they did not want Toomey to suffer a similar fate by falling into the conservative niche in the state.

Toomey might be known as a conservative in D.C. and parts of eastern Pennsylvania, but polling shows he is not well-known throughout the rest of the state among general election voters — giving the former Congressman a perfect opportunity to recast his candidacy in the middle of the political spectrum.

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