updated 4/27/2004 11:24:42 AM ET 2004-04-27T15:24:42

Citing the backing of President Bush, Sen. Arlen Specter voted Tuesday in the Republican primary, seeking a fifth term and hoping to ward off a strong challenge by conservative Rep. Pat Toomey.

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Polls opened at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Specter, 74, has been a moderate mainstay in the U.S. Senate. But Toomey, 42, has moved to within striking distance of an upset win, according to recent polls.

“I think it’s very important to focus on what President Bush wants,” Specter said after he voted early Tuesday in Philadelphia’s East Falls section. “He’s the leader of the party. He thinks I can help him be re-elected.”

Toomey started his day greeting voters in Lancaster County and planned to vote later in Zionsville, in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh County.

“I’ve been thrilled with the reaction from people I’ve gotten at the polls,” Toomey said. “It feels very good.”

National stakes
The race is a national litmus test of the strength of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. A Specter loss would throw the Republicans’ slim 51-seat majority in the Senate into doubt and could crimp President Bush’s chances of winning much-needed moderate voters in the swing state this fall.

“The Democrats are on the sidelines hoping that I lose,” Specter said.

As recently as last month, few believed Toomey, a junior congressman, could retire the state’s senior senator. But a poll released on the primary’s eve showed Specter with a slight 6-point lead over Toomey, and below the crucial 50 percent threshold.

The winner of the primary will face Democrat Rep. Joe Hoeffel, a three-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs, in the Nov. 2 election.

The Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed Specter leading Toomey, 48 percent to 42 percent among 617 likely GOP primary voters. Ten percent remained undecided, according to the poll conducted April 20-24. It reported a sampling-error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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