3 tight races in Pa.'s hot corner

Control of House could be set in trio of southeast districts

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H. Rumph Jr., Associated PressFormer President Bill Clinton, left, speaks at a rally for Democratic congressional candidate Joe Sestak, seated with his wife, Susan, in Wayne, Pa., Thursday.

CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa. -- Defying the light rain that threatened the plumage of the string bands farther back in the parade, Rep. Curt Weldon waved to the crowds lining the main street of this aging industrial suburb.

The 10-term incumbent, a former volunteer firefighter himself, looked right at home in his monogrammed FDNY sweater, waving to his constituents as he marched ahead of a local fire company. He's less at home, however, wearing the mantle of embattled incumbent.

October is normally stress-free for Mr. Weldon, who hasn't faced a really tough race since he captured the 7th District seat in 1986. But this year, things are different. He faces Joe Sestak, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, who has come back to his suburban Philadelphia roots to give Mr. Weldon the challenge of his political life.

A mile or so up Butler Pike, where Conshohocken's border with Plymouth Township divides the 7th and 6th Congressional districts, Lois Murphy, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Rep. Jim Gerlach, calls theirs "one of the most important races in the country."

And just a few minutes up the Blue Route, in Bucks County's 8th District, yet another important race pits Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick against political neophyte Patrick Murphy, an Iraq war veteran.

Although it's debatable which of the three races is at the head of the line of crucial contests, there's probably no more compact concentration in the country of congressional swing seats than the three in the Delaware Valley communities hugging Philadelphia's borders.

The importance of the races is not lost on the candidates.

On a sunny Saturday morning, Ms. Murphy was in a shopping center parking lot, firing up about 20 volunteers for a morning of door-knocking, the low-tech data collection machine that feeds the campaign's high tech turnout software.

"This is our moment to change direction, to change the country," Ms. Murphy told her team, a group dominated by college students and retirees.

Later the same afternoon, Mr. Weldon thundered to a group of GOP partisans gathered in the banquet room of an Italian restaurant in a Drexel Hill strip mall, "Here in Delaware County you've got Ground Zero of whether we're going to have control of the House or Senate."

Changing dynamic
Democrats are aiming to pick up at least 15 seats next month to capture control of the House of Representatives. Issues of war and terrorism have reinforced longer-term demographic trends to make these historically Republican communities a target-rich environment for the challengers.

The forces that produced this new competitiveness pose a threat to Republican control of both chambers of Congress. Sen. Rick Santorum won these communities six years ago. Now he is in a pitched battle to retain their support, one that could determine whether he will get a chance to seek the number two Republican Senate leadership spot in the next Congress.

"All three are competitive,'' said Matt Kerbel, a political science professor at Villanova University. "The Philadelphia suburbs are turning blue."

Walking in the Conshohocken parade a few fire companies ahead of Mr. Weldon was borough Commissioner Robert Stokley. He notes proudly that his great-great grandfather, William Strumberg Stokley, was the mayor of Philadelphia from 1872 to 1880, early in the reign of one of the GOP's most enduring urban machines. That reign ended in the 1950s, as the city belatedly joined the list of Democratic strongholds. Now, things are changing beyond the city's borders.

"When I moved here in 1980, the Republicans were strong,'' he said, "Now, we have to fight.''

Tom Judge is the veteran Republican chairman of Delaware County, the center of the 7th District. He heads what is historically one of the strongest Republican organizations in the state, the legendary "war board." Mr. Judge insists the GOP candidates will prevail here in November but concedes that the victories he predicts would come against a potent political headwind.

"In my thirty years as party chairman, I can't remember a time when the opposite party was giving us such a run," he said as he greeted a string of committee members and candidates. "It's getting tougher, no question."

The Republican heritage is strong here. The GOP organizations in Delaware and Chester counties are powerful voices in local contests. Montgomery County retains the Republican majority that has ruled its county commission since 1874. In the municipal elections that occur in odd-numbered years, the GOP remains powerful. But recent even-numbered years have produced a different dynamic.

At the same time that Mr. Santorum held each of these counties against former Rep. Ron Klink six years ago, former Vice President Al Gore ran ahead of President Bush. In 2002, Gov. Ed Rendell, a familiar neighbor, rode a tidal wave of support here. And in 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., easily led President Bush in the collective tally of the four big suburban counties -- Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks.

Many observers saw further evidence of the region's changing dynamics this spring when Democrat Andrew Dinniman stunned the Republican candidate in a special election for a state Senate vacancy in Chester County, the most affluent and supposedly the most reliably Republican of the collar counties.

Mr. Judge and other Republicans blame much of their increasing challenge on the migration of Democrats to the suburbs.

"One point one million people have left the city of Philadelphia since 1950 and it's hard sometimes for them to change habits," said Jim Matthews, the Montgomery County commissioner who is Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann's running mate.

"The problem we have in the East [of Pennsylvania] is people moving in from New Jersey and New York," Mr. Santorum said in an interview this summer. "It's becoming Connecticut."

An IssuesPa/Pew survey released last month found the southeastern Pennsylvania suburbs more favorable toward environmental regulation and gun control than other areas of the state.

"The two major parties are at equal strength in party ID and the region leans to the left in its distinguishing political values," the Pew survey found.

War and terrorism
Mr. Kerbel, of Villanova, sees the roots of the shifting voting patterns in the relatively moderate Republican strain typical here as in much of the Northeast.

"You're seeing a lot of self -identifying Republicans voting for Democrats," he said. "The emphasis on social conservatism is an influence. It's not unlike the way the liberal shift of the national Democratic Party pushed it away from its traditional voters in the South.''

The IssuesPa/Pew survey found Republican voters here as likely to describe themselves as moderate to liberal as conservative.

"The roots of this go back a decade or so,'' said Terry Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall College political scientist whose polling has shown close races for the Weldon seat and in the neighboring contest between Rep. Gerlach and Ms. Murphy.

"We're see a trend against the Republican Party accelerated by the rise of the social conservatives in the party. With the war, you've got a tipping point."

Mr. Matthews sees the Iraq war as a powerful weight on Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

"It's a huge influence,'' he said between greeting his Montgomery County constituents. "Some people have apologized to me and said, 'Jim, I love you; you'll make a great lieutenant governor but I have to make a statement against the war.' It is immensely frustrating.''

Keystone Polls conducted in Mr. Gerlach's 6th and Mr. Weldon's 7th districts showed the war in Iraq as the most frequently cited issue for voters in both the House and Senate races. A late September survey showed Mr. Weldon and Mr. Sestak in a virtual dead heat. In the neighboring district, Mr. Gerlach had a narrow lead over Ms. Murphy, a candidate who came within two percentage points of defeating him two years ago. And at least one more recent poll showed the Democrat slightly ahead of Mr. Gerlach.

The surveys had bracing news for Mr. Santorum as well. In the 6th District, an oddly-shaped jurisdiction that includes much of Chester County, a slice of Montgomery County and extends into Berks County, he was in a virtual dead heat with Democrat Bob Casey, the state treasurer. And in the 7th District, dominated by Delaware County but also including parts of Chester and Montgomery, Mr. Casey led by the thumping margin of 49 percent to 32 percent.

In the 8th District, Mr. Fitzpatrick, won election handily to his first term two years, 55 percent to 43 percent, even as Mr. Kerry was edging the president in his district. Mr. Murphy, his challenger, is one of the cadre of Iraq war veterans that the Democrats have recruited for their candidate lists across the country. The district has a GOP majority but new Democratic registration has outpaced the GOP's in Bucks County in recent years.

Mr. Fitzpatrick has made a point of distancing himself from the administration's war policies, calling the president's stay-the-course rhetoric "extreme." He was also among the first GOP House members to call for an investigation and disciplinary action over the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.

In the nearby 6th District, Lois Murphy -- no relation to Patrick Murphy -- has also tried to link Mr. Gerlach and the president.

"I see a shift especially among Republicans and independents in their support for the administration on ... the war in Iraq, and I think Hurricane Katrina was a big turning point," she said.

Mr. Weldon has immersed himself in defense and foreign policy issues, at times confronting administration policy on issues ranging from North Korea to his contention that officials ignored 9/11 warnings produced by a secret Pentagon unit known as Able Danger.

All three of these races appear on every list of targeted or competitive races. Evidence of the prominence of the 7th District contest abounded last week as First Lady Laura Bush stumped for Mr. Weldon the day before former President Bill Clinton led a rally for Mr. Sestak.

"I will not make a single stop in this campaign season that means more to me than this one -- not one," Mr. Clinton told Mr. Sestak's supporters Thursday.

There are other tough House races in the state this year. In Northeastern Pennsylvania, Rep. Don Sherwood, the incumbent Republican, is desperately trying to overcome the effects of public controversy over his personal life. When you have to run an ad that says, in substance, "I had an extramarital affair but despite what you've heard, I didn't strangle my mistress," you have a problem. Democrat Chris Carney has apparently capitalized on it with a big lead on one public poll.

In the Pittsburgh region, Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, is facing the toughest race in her House career, battling an energetic challenge from Jason Altmire. But to see so much concentrated competition on an eighth of a tank of gas, you have to travel to the state's other southern corner.


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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