Interest intensifying in Hart-Altmire race for Congress

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Steve Mellon, Post-GazetteJason Altmire, center, Democratic candidate in the 4th Congressional District, shakes hands with former senator and Vietnam veteran Max Cleland during a rally in Ambridge on Friday.
Bob Donaldson, Post-GazetteAs her race for re-election nears its close, U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart is campaigning hard, but her organization says the race is not as close as Democrats would hope.

The contests in the two congressional districts north and south of Pittsburgh couldn't be more similar on paper.

In both the 4th and 18th districts, conservative Republican incumbents with a history of successfully wooing Democratic voters are vying with first-timers who portray themselves as centrists opposed to unpopular Bush administration policies.

What's different is that the race in the north -- Rep. Melissa Hart against Jason Altmire -- is causing increasing optimism among Democrats and increasing signs of concern among Republicans, while the one in the south -- Rep. Tim Murphy against Chad Kluko -- has failed to generate much of anything on either side.

Nationally prominent Democrats from Al Franken to Sen. John F. Kerry have flown in to help Mr. Altmire; the National Republican Congressional Committee has bought television ads to support Ms. Hart; and polling seems to support -- in Democrats' minds -- the possibility that the anti-incumbent, anti-Republican sentiment arising in much of the country could undo even a female political powerhouse untouched by scandal. That prospect seemed unthinkable a half-year ago.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kluko clings to the notion that a surge of angry Democrats to the polls on Nov. 7 will help him oust Mr. Murphy in the 18th District, but the challenger has no paid staff, no television advertising budget and no attention-drawing political celebrities to help him do it. Ironically, his district has an even bigger Democratic registration advantage than the 4th District -- 70,000 compared to 55,000.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, an adviser to both Democratic challengers who lacks a Republican opponent of his own to retain his Pittsburgh-based district, said the difference in the two suburban races lies in one simple campaign ingredient: money.

Mr. Altmire raised enough after the primary election to legitimize himself in the eyes of his party, to get on the airwaves in September, to do some polling suggesting a close race, and to get some more backing.

On Friday, former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost his legs from Vietnam War battle wounds, attracted 100 cheering veterans to a rally at Ambridge VFW Post 165 after a fund-raiser beforehand that garnered $12,000. The Kerry fund-raiser Wednesday will be a private, $500-a-head event at a Fox Chapel home. A private fund-raiser in the Strip District featuring comedian Franken raised $24,000, according to the campaign.

"Money begets money," Mr. Doyle said. "For challengers who aren't known, their primary job is to raise money, and it's not easy."

So now Mr. Altmire is counting on reaching an eventual campaign goal of $1 million, only half of what Ms. Hart expects to raise but enough to run TV ads through the rest of the campaign. That's aside from whatever commercials the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee may air separately on his behalf. The national committee is not allowed to coordinate its plans with the candidate, but Mr. Altmire believes commercials from it are imminent.

In fact, he and his supporters say their optimism has been buoyed more than anything by the National Republican Congressional Committee's spending of at least $160,000 starting last week on commercials that name Mr. Altmire and attack his stance to let national tax cuts expire. If the GOP did not have its own information that Ms. Hart was in jeopardy, they reason, the national committee would spend its money in races it deemed more at risk.

NRCC spokesman Ed Patru declined to provide the details of a poll done immediately before the ads began but said Republican higher-ups are confident of Ms. Hart's re-election.

"We keep an eye on every race," he said. "This is a case, where from a strategic standpoint, it made sense to make a relatively nominal investment as a political insurance policy of sorts."

The race has been a testy one between two tall, young, energetic representatives of their parties, who knew one another in Washington when Mr. Altmire was a UPMC lobbyist . Mr. Altmire resigned from his UPMC governmental affairs position in mid-2005 to run for the office against the three-term congresswoman.

Mr. Altmire's initial ads attacked her for a voting record he claimed "blindly" follows George Bush and Rick Santorum. She has accused him of lies but rejected various public debate offers. Mr. Altmire says five different groups have tried to put them side by side.

Ms. Hart's campaign manager, Luke Myslinski, said the race is not as close as the Democrats would like to think, but his comments also allowed for the idea that it's not the same breezy cakewalk she has had in three prior elections, typically besting Democrats by about a 60-40 margin.

"We're happy where we are," Mr. Myslinski said. "We always knew this would be a race. There's only 39 percent Republicans [in the district]. We're busy getting out our message, and happy with how it's going."

To succeed, both Mr. Altmire and Mr. Kluko must persuade the many blue-collar Democrats who have been voting Republican in recent elections to make their ballots match their registration cards. In the 2004 election, when both GOP congressional incumbents won easily, George Bush also captured 54 percent of the presidential vote over Mr. Kerry in both districts.

Both challengers believe they'll benefit from having Democrats Bob Casey and Ed Rendell at the top of the ticket, with polls showing them leading over incumbent U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and gubernatorial challenger Lynn Swann.

Mr. Murphy said he is taking nothing for granted, continuing a schedule heavy with door-to-door visits throughout the district and launching a large round of advertising to cover the next 16 days. "Who knows what people do when they close the curtains on Election Day?" he said.

His challenger's difficulties were symbolized Wednesday, however, by a gathering of labor officials at the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 154 union hall in Banksville to endorse Mr. Murphy. The banner behind him proclaimed Mr. Murphy had the backing from, among others, the boilermakers, Building and Construction Trades Council, United Mine Workers, Pennsylvania State Education Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Many of those same unions are backing Mr. Altmire in his race and have contributed money to him . Mr. Murphy's voting record in the eyes of the AFL-CIO is similarly unfavorable to Ms. Hart's -- just as the two Republicans' voting records in general are similar -- but union leaders who were present said he had at least been a much better communicator with them. They denied their support of Mr. Murphy was based on an assumption he would win the race, although Congressman Doyle suggested that was the case.

Mr. Kluko said he doubts the unions will be working actively for Mr. Murphy the way they are for Mr. Altmire. Of his financial troubles, he said he was hampered by entering his race about a half-year later than Mr. Altmire.

He does plan radio advertising to accompany his community campaign events, and hopes to get some free cable television exposure from airing of the only debate to be held in the Murphy-Kluko race. That debate takes place at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Cecil Municipal Building, 3599 Millers Run Road.


Gary Rotstein can be reached at grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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