[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/05/03/specter.gop/art.specter.walk.afp.gi.jpg caption="A new poll handicaps Arlen Specter's general election chances in 2010 against two prominent Pennsylvania Republicans."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - A new poll of Pennsylvania voters suggests that the newest Democrat in Congress, Sen. Arlen Specter, would easily beat his old rival, Republican Pat Toomey, in Specter's battle for re-election next year.
But the Quinnipiac University survey, released Monday, indicates that Specter would have a much tougher re-election fight on his hands if he faces
off in 2010 against former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.
Last Tuesday Specter, who has represented Pennsylvania in the Senate for nearly 30 years as a Republican, announced he was switching his party affiliation from the GOP to the Democrats.
The longtime moderate Republican said he was "anxious" to stay in the Senate, and didn't want to face a Republican primary in order to keep his seat next year.
"I was unwilling to subject my 29-year record in the U.S. Senate to the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate," Specter said Tuesday. "But I am pleased to run in the primary on the Democratic ticket and am ready, willing and anxious to take on all comers in the general election."
Fifty-three percent of Pennsylvania voters say they would back Specter if their state's Senate race were held today, with 33 percent supporting Toomey. The fiscally conservative former congressman narrowly lost to Specter in the 2004 Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary and decided to take on Specter a second time after Specter was one of only three Republicans in Congress to vote for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.
But if Specter faces off against Ridge, a popular former Pennsylvania governor before joining the Bush Administration after the September 11th attacks as the first director and then secretary of Homeland Security, the poll indicates the race, if held today, would be extremely close. Forty-six percent of those questioned back Specter, with 43 percent supporting Ridge.
CNN's Dana Bash reports that Ridge has been formally approached by the Republican establishment in Pennsylvania to try and run in next year's election. A GOP strategist tells Bash that while it would be a struggle to encourage Ridge to run, the former governor did not close the door to the suggestion in his private conversation with top state Republicans.
"Gov. Tom Ridge is probably the only political figure in Pennsylvania who could give Sen. Arlen Specter a run for his money. But even if he gets a strong challenge from a Republican, Specter is still better off for having changed parties because he seemed headed to certain defeat had he stayed a Republican and faced Toomey in a primary," says Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
In the poll, taken after Specter's switch of parties, 56 percent of respondents approve of the job the Senator is doing, 20 points higher than the 35 percent who disapprove.
Eight out of ten Democrats approve of Specter's duties as a senator, with Independents giving him a thumbs up by a 54 to 37 percent margin. Seven out of ten Republicans questioned disapprove of Specter's job as a senator.
Forty-nine percent say Specter deserves re-election, with 41 percent saying he doesn't deserve another term in office. Six in ten feel that the 79 year old Specter is not too old to serve another six year term in the Senate.
Before next year's general election, Specter could face primary opponents. Democrat Joe Torsella, who was already in the race, said last week that he would not step aside following the news that Specter was switching parties. Torsella is the former head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak told CNN Sunday that he wasn't sure Sen. Arlen Specter is really part of the Democratic Party, the latest in a series of tough comments aimed at his potential Senate primary rival.
"I'm not sure he's a Democrat yet," he told John King on State of the Union.
President Obama said earlier in the week that Specter had his support, with one administration official saying it took the president about "seven seconds" to make that decision.
Those remarks don't faze Sestak.
"The president has said he respects Arlen's independence…" he said. "He'll respect mine if that is the case, I know that."
In an effort to give a boost to any potential Democratic primary challenger, Specter's former colleagues in the Senate GOP launched a new campaign last week designed to highlight the consistency of his Republican record and his ties to President Bush and other party leaders.
Republican Sen. John Ensign vowed Sunday that his party will make sure Specter, the newly-minted Democrat, loses his re-election bid in 2010.
"I know as Republicans that we have some great candidates that we're recruiting out there," Ensign said on Fox News Sunday. "And we want to make sure that Arlen Specter is no longer in the United States Senate after the next election. We're going to work very hard to make sure that happens."
Specter's move could trigger a seismic shift in Washington and could be a major boon for Obama. Specter's switch gives the Democrats 59 votes in the Senate. If Democrat Al Franken wins the Minnesota Senate race, which is tied up in that state's supreme court, Democrats would have a 60-seat filibuster proof majority in the Senate.
The Quinnipiac University poll was conducted April 29-May 3, with 1,120 Pennsylvania voters questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.