WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A poll of Pennsylvania voters suggests that the newest Democrat in Congress, Sen. Arlen Specter, would easily beat his old rival, Republican Pat Toomey, in a Senate race next year.
Sen. Arlen Specter gains the support of President Obama after announcing his switch to the Democratic Party.
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 Gov. Tom Ridge.
Specter, who has represented Pennsylvania in the Senate for nearly 30 years as a Republican, announced last week that he was switching his party affiliation to the Democrats.
The longtime moderate Republican said he was "anxious" to stay in the Senate and didn't want to face a GOP primary 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 said they would back Specter if their state's Senate race were held today, with 33 percent supporting Toomey, the poll found.
Toomey, a fiscally conservative ex-congressman who narrowly lost to Specter in the 2004 Republican Senate primary, decided to take on the incumbent a second time after Specter became one of three congressional Republicans to vote for President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. Watch as the House minority whip says Specter left the GOP for "political survival" »
But the poll indicates the race, if held today, would be extremely close if Specter faces off against Ridge, a popular former governor before joining the Bush administration after the September 11, 2001, attacks as the first director and then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Forty-six percent of those questioned back Specter, with 43 percent supporting Ridge.
The Republican establishment in Pennsylvania has approached Ridge to run next year, CNN's Dana Bash reports.
A GOP strategist said 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," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Fifty-six percent of respondents approve of the job the senator is doing, more than 20 percentage points higher than the 35 percent who disapprove. The poll was conducted after Specter announced he was switching parties.
Eight out of 10 Democrats approve of Specter's duties as a senator, with independents giving him a thumbs up by a margin of 54 percent to 37 percent. Seven out of 10 Republicans questioned disapprove of Specter's job as a senator.
Forty-nine percent said Specter deserves re-election, with 41 percent saying he doesn't deserve another term in office. Six in 10 said they feel the 79-year-old lawmaker is not too old to serve another six-year term in the Senate.
Before next year's general election, Specter could face Democratic 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.
U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania said Sunday that he wasn't sure 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," Sestak said on CNN's "State of the Union" with John King.
Obama said last week that Specter had his support, with one administration official adding that it took the president about "seven seconds" to make that decision.
Those remarks don't seem to 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.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, vowed Sunday that his party will make sure Specter loses his re-election bid.
"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 Wednesday through Sunday, with 1,120 Pennsylvania voters questioned by telephone. The survey's sampling error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.