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Politically active Democratic lawyers in Southeastern Pennsylvania have historically supported Sen. Arlen Specter when election time comes around, but this season, some of them are feeling torn between the Republican and his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Joseph Hoeffel.

Both candidates for the U.S. Senate have been friendly to trial lawyer interests, and the lobby has contributed money to both candidates when they’ve run in the past – Specter for four terms in the Senate and Hoeffel for his posts in the U.S. House of Representatives and the state Senate.

“A lot of lawyers in Philadelphia are good Democrats and good friends of Sen. Specter,” said Mark Alderman of Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen. “This is where friendship and party allegiance collide.”

When two of your good friends are running against one another, whom do you support?

Some attorneys said they’d give to both.

“The truth is, both these guys are good for us,” said one trial lawyer who’s active in Democratic politics. “Trial lawyers are interested in supporting candidates who keep the courthouse doors open to victims of catastrophic accidents. Traditionally, it’s been the Democrats doing this – except for when you’ve got a guy like Arlen Specter.”

Richard Golomb, a former president of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association, said he’s written checks for both candidates’ past campaigns. He hasn’t yet decided what he’ll do this election.

“I’d like to see them both be our senators if that was an option,” said Golomb of Golomb & Honik.

The beginning of the general election season is a crucial time for fund-raising, and, as the incumbent, Specter has an established advantage in the competition for campaign dollars. However, the senator’s hard-hitting challenge from the fiscally conservative Rep. Pat Toomey in the primary drained his warchest by at least $10 million.

Political analysts have said Hoeffel needs to raise at least $5 million to $7 million to put up a good fight.

If Democratic lawyers are resolving their split loyalties by giving to both candidates, it’s probable that the trial lawyer associations will contribute to both candidates also, lawyers said. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America has given to both candidates’ congressional campaigns in the past.

“This race is not going to be decided on party labels,” said Kenneth Trujillo, a partner at Trujillo Rodriguez & Richards and former Philadelphia city solicitor. “I don’t think you’ll have all the trial lawyers on one side or another.”

Specter made a name for himself in Philadelphia serving as district attorney from 1966 to 1974, and Hoeffel, whose district is in Montgomery County, practiced law for a time out of a Norristown firm.

But while Specter has longtime ties to the legal community in Philadelphia and his son, Shanin Specter, is a well-known trial attorney in town, many Democrats – locally and across the country – are eyeing the Republicans’ slim majority in the Senate and hoping Hoeffel may be the one to tip the balance.

Local Democratic lawyers “are going to have conflicting emotions,” said Alan Kessler, an attorney at Wolf Block and chairman of the Democratic Party’s state finance committee.

While party members want to see Democrats take back the Senate, “many have long-standing relationships with Sen. Specter,” Kessler noted.

A swing factor for Hoeffel’s bid, Kessler noted, may be Pennsylvania’s swing factor in the presidential race.

“Pennsylvania’s voted Democrat in the last couple of presidential elections,” Kessler said. “If there’s a lot of people out voting for [Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry], it may help Hoeffel.”

Alderman and Joseph Manko, who head the Massachusetts senator’s fund-raising efforts in Pennsylvania, agreed.

“I’m hoping his coattails are long,” said Manko of Manko Gold Katcher & Fox in Bala Cynwyd.

Specter ran commercials that showed him with President Bush, who supported Specter’s candidacy during the primary. In campaign speeches, Specter has frequently mentioned his time spent with the president, whose approval ratings have dipped notably in recent months.

“Joe’s challenge is to make the Senate race about the presidency,” Alderman said. “John Kerry is going to carry Pennsylvania, and if Joe gets as many votes as John, he’ll be a senator.”

But Manko also acknowledged some Democrats’ reservations about losing Specter’s seniority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the confirmations of nominated federal court judges.

“There’s concern it would be opening up the floodgates to right-wing judicial candidates,” Manko said.

Manko said he understands Hoeffel wouldn’t have Specter’s sway in the committee. But if the Democrats take the Senate or the White House, it wouldn’t be an issue anyway because conservative nominees couldn’t get approved.

Congress has considered several bills of interest to the trial lawyer lobby over the last year, including the Republicans’ efforts to limit non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits to $250,000, as well as restricting class-action lawsuits by making it easier to move them from state to federal courts.

Hoeffel voted against both measures last year, but they passed and moved to the Senate.

In the Senate there’s been a push to establish a trust fund for victims of asbestos poisoning in an effort to limit lawsuits. Senate Democrats filibustered the measure last week, and Republicans didn’t have the 60 votes to overcome it. Specter was not there for the vote.

One Philadelphia attorney, who described himself as a staunch Republican, said he anticipates strong support for Specter from the local trial lawyer community.

“Sen. Specter has not been as aggressive as other Republican senators in pushing for reform with medical malpractice and class-action abuse,” said the lawyer, who represents corporate clients. “If this were almost any other race, I’d say the Democrat would have the edge. But not here.”

James Mundy, another former president of the trial lawyers association, said his brethren would vote their consciences at the ballot box.

“It’s going to be a tough call,” said Mundy of Raynes McCarty Binder Ross & Mundy. “But in a sense it’s a nice call, because we can’t lose.”

Jeff Blumenthal contributed to this report.

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