Iraq, Foley dog the GOP in a key race

In Philadelphia's suburbs, contest for the Seventh Congressional District is a dead heat, polls show.

The town of Marcus Hook turned out two fire trucks, three honor guards, and a brass band to honor Curt Weldon, now in the race of his life to hold his US House seat against retired Adm. Joe Sestak (D) in the November election.

The 10-term lawmaker got his political start as mayor here, where he drove the Pagan biker gang out of town. As the No. 2 Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Weldon leveraged defense-related jobs into the district.

But this year, knowing and serving the district may not be enough. Local issues, typically the grist of midterm elections, are being eclipsed by national ones: the war in Iraq and low ratings for the GOP-controlled Congress – fueled most recently by a GOP sex scandal involving congressional pages.

"Curt has always done good for us, but a lot of people have turned against Bush because of the war. It's not fair, but it's going to be tough," says Chevelle Sipps, a Weldon supporter here.

Indeed, the Philadelphia region is now Ground Zero in the battle for control of the House, analysts say.

Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take control the House, and they hope to pick up three of them in the Philadelphia suburbs: Representatives Weldon in the Seventh District, Jim Gerlach in the Sixth and Mike Fitzpatrick in the Eighth. Historically Republican, the Philadelphia suburbs voted for Democrats Al Gore for president in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

"The reason the House Republicans have increased their numbers since 1995 was because they began to win the South, but they've run the string out. There aren't any more seats to win. So the battleground now are the suburbs in the north that used to be Republican and now are trending Democratic: in Ohio, Philadelphia, New York, and Connecticut," says Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin Marshall, who directs the Keystone poll.

A recent Keystone poll now calls the Weldon-Sestak race a "dead heat" with Sestak at 44 percent and Weldon at 43 percent. On Friday, the Cook Political Report shifted its prediction for this race from "lean Republican" to a tossup.

In addition, Democrats are fielding – and financing – strong candidates in these races. "For the first time, voters in this district are being presented with a credible alternative to Weldon," writes Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report.

Sestak headquarters in Media, Pa., an upscale suburb of Philadelphia, churns with activity. The campaign claims some 2,000 volunteers, including a vast family network in Delaware County. With seven siblings – six still living in the district, "he has almost enough relatives to win," said President Clinton at a fundraiser for Sestak last week.

But what most distinguishes Sestak from former Weldon rivals is his ability to raise campaign funds, more than $1.14 million from July through Sept. 30, Sestak said Wednesday. That's $2.27 million since he announced his candidacy in February – more than all other previous Weldon rivals combined.

A former three-star admiral who conducted combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring in January, Sestak calls the Iraq war a "tragic misadventure" and calls for the withdrawal of US troops by the end of next year.

"When we entered the race, we thought Iraq would be No. 5 or 6 [on the list of voters' concerns], but everywhere we go it's the first or second question," said Sestak, in an interview with the Monitor last week.

"There's such a feeling that something has to change. I respect Congressman Weldon's public service, but he's been there too long," he says.

Sestak served as President Clinton's director for defense policy for the National Security Council. He says that his time in the Navy taught him that "national security begins at home in the health, education, and economic promise of our people."

But since last week he is also discussing the recent sex scandal on Capitol Hill involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida, who resigned from Congress Sept. 29 after being confronted with sexually explicit electronic messages that he sent to male former pages.

The Foley scandal is "another heavy stain that indicates what people feel already about this Congress: How accountable are Republicans when they can't take care of themselves ... they knew what was going on and did nothing," Sestak says.

Meanwhile, Weldon, like other GOP incumbents in the suburbs, is highlighting his independence from the GOP establishment. His campaign slogan – Curt Weldon...Independent Fighter for US – doesn't mention the Republican Party. But he's not backing away from the war in Iraq. (Weldon famously volunteered to go to Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction.) "It's going to be a tough race, but I'm not going to run away from the president," he said in a Monitor interview.

Citing former Democratic sex scandals involving pages and interns, Weldon says there's hypocrisy in the Foley scandal "you could cut with a knife." But he says it's not going to hurt his campaign. "People will see it for what it is," he says. "I'm swimming upstream, but the one thing I have is the people."

But analysts tracking this race say the issue can still hurt him, by depressing Republican turnout and detracting from his message of local service.

"All the momentum is with the Democrats, and it's up to Republicans to break that momentum and turn out their voters. The Foley scandal makes it that much harder for Republicans to get their message out and change that dynamic," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Sestak is hoping to benefit from the current focus on national issues, says David Landau, senior adviser to the Sestak campaign, who ran against Weldon in 1988. "In a normal election, you can get by with saying 'I'm the guy who saved Boeing,' but with the issues floating around in this election, a congressman has to have something more."

In response, the Weldon campaign says Sestak is a carpetbagger, who doesn't pay property taxes in the district and has missed voting in many recent elections.

"The district wants someone who lives here, not someone who rents a condo two weeks before he comes into the race or mispronounces the names of towns he was in," says Michael Puppio, Weldon's campaign manager.

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