WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan is pondering a run for Congress to challenge Democrat Rep. Jason Altmire next fall.
Ms. Buchanan, a Republican and appointee of former President George W. Bush, has been considering a run for at least a month, Allegheny County Republican Party Chairman Jim Roddey said yesterday.
She did not return several messages left seeking comment. Ms. Buchanan is in Washington, D.C., this week.
Mr. Roddey said he has met with her, and Ms. Buchanan is consulting with state and national Republican leaders to gauge support and her chances against the second-term Democrat from McCandless.
Mr. Roddey put the chances of a Buchanan candidacy in Pennsylvania's fourth district at 50-50.
"She's in the exploratory phase right now," Mr. Roddey said. "It will take at least a million dollars to run, so that's a big consideration."
The county GOP leader said he did not see any ethical qualms with exploring a run while sitting as the chief federal prosecutor for Western Pennsylvania, and said Ms. Buchanan should step down only if she announces her candidacy.
Mr. Altmire, who said he has heard Ms. Buchanan's name mentioned as a possible opponent, disagreed.
"She's in a position that's supposed to be nonpolitical," Mr. Altmire said. "If that's true, I think it would be an inappropriate use of her time."
But University of Pittsburgh law and ethics professor John Burkoff disagreed with Mr. Altmire.
"There's not a problem with contemplating a run for office, generally," he said.
However, Ms. Buchanan will have to be careful to avoid any potential conflicts of interest that could arise around the political race.
Ms. Buchanan, 46, of Fox Chapel, was appointed as U.S. attorney in September 2001.
She remains in the office nearly a year after President Barack Obama was elected.
Senators Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, appointed a committee to interview candidates for the U.S. attorney position in July.
Recommendations have been made to them, and it is believed that an announcement on a nominee is expected in the near future.
Ms. Buchanan has been a polarizing figure during her eight-year tenure. She has been criticized for bringing politically motivated criminal cases, including the unsuccessful prosecution of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht.
Her ties to Mr. Bush will be used against her in a potential campaign, Mr. Roddey said, in a similar manner to Mr. Altmire's attacks on former Rep. Melissa Hart -- whom he unseated in 2006 and defeated again in '08.
"That was certainly effective, and whether or not that remains effective I don't know," Mr. Roddey said of the Bush attacks.
"[Ms. Buchanan has] certainly got the name recognition, and I think a woman could do well in that district. And she's a fresh face. ... It's generally a conservative area. A lot of them are now concerned that Obama may be a little too liberal for them. You never know. It's still a long way to go, but I know she would be a viable candidate."
Tory Mazzola, of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that the organization is trying to recruit candidates to run against Mr. Altmire. So far, the only declared opponent is little-known Pittsburgh attorney Keith Rothfus.
Mr. Mazzola said it is too early to say if the organization would commit a lot of money to the cause. Asked whether Mr. Altmire is vulnerable, Mr. Mazzola said, "We're hopeful.
"The reason we're hopeful is Altmire's voting record is in line almost lockstep with [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. And that alone is troubling for him in his district."
According to the Washington Post's Congressional vote tracking database, Mr. Altmire has voted with his party 88.5 percent of the time -- one of the lowest rates in the Democratic caucus.
Mr. Altmire voted against the "cap-and-trade" climate bill that passed the House and voted against the health-care bill in the Education and Labor Committee.
A member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democratic caucus, he has cast himself as a centrist in a district that includes many rural areas, in addition to suburbs, north and west of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Altmire won his race by nearly 12 percentage points last fall, while Republican John McCain won 55 percent of the presidential vote in the district.
Pennsylvania House Republican Whip Mike Turzai, of Bradford Woods, had been mentioned as a possible big-name foe for Mr. Altmire, but Mr. Roddey said yesterday he is convinced Mr. Turzai will not run.
"I think his goal is to try to work to take control of the House so that he can be majority leader."