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Political terrain favors Fitzpatrick in rematch against Murphy in 8th District

By Scott Kraus and Jenna Portnoy, OF THE MORNING CALL

One of Democrat Patrick Murphy’s best weapons in his surprising 2006 ouster of Republican Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick was to depict the incumbent alongside his party’s unpopular standard-bearer and Iraq War initiator: President George W. Bush.

In four years, the political terrain has flipped.

As Fitzpatrick battles to retake the Bucks County-based 8th Congressional District seat, where unemployment hovers around 8 percent, he has discovered one of his best weapons this time around is linking Murphy to his own party’s increasingly unpopular president, Barack Obama.

“In 2006 there was a great amount of fatigue for the Bush Administration and three years of the war in Iraq,” Fitzpatrick said. “Americans were upset with the foreign policy direction…In 2010, the issues are not foreign policy, they are all economic.”

The way Fitzpatrick sees it, Murphy’s early endorsement of Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and votes for the administration’s economic stimulus and health care reform legislation have alienated some of the two-term Congressman’s core voters, while Republicans and their tea party activist allies are fired up and ready to vote.

Murphy counters that his work in Congress has helped nudge the economy in the right direction and begin to fix the mess that the previous administration got the country into.

“In my three and a half years, I’ve helped bring back 3,000 jobs to my district, and we need to do more,” Murphy said. “But we can’t turn back to the same failed Bush-Fitzpatrick economic policies that ran our country into the ground to begin with.”

With both men well-known to voters within the district, the election is a referendum on national leadership, primarily the economy, said Bill Pezza, a history and government professor at Bucks County Community College. “It is a microcosm of what is happening nationally.”

The district, which includes a small piece of Northeast Philadelphia, was once solidly Republican. But after a surge in Democratic registrations in 2008, now has nearly 14,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

It has elected Congressmen from both parties because it is home to a generally moderate electorate that often reflects the national mood, Pezza said.

Polling, which initially had Murphy in the lead, now shows the race tilted toward Fitzpatrick.

Springfield Township preschool teacher Tina Tranauskas is among Fitzpatrick’s supporters.

A former Democrat who switched her registration to Republican after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the 43-year-old preschool teacher said she’s not particularly partisan, but likes Fitzpatrick’s detailed policy positions and the constituent service he provided as a Congressman.

“I can’t wait to go out and vote…what I am really hoping for is balance in Washington,” she said. “With one party rule, things are way out of hand.”

Murphy’s counting on voters like West Rockhill’s Township’s Dan Walker, a retired union rep and registered Democrat, to turn out in large enough numbers to offset the enthusiasm of highly motivated Republicans like Tranauskas.

Fitzpatrick has tried to lay the blame for the sluggish economy at the feet of Murphy and his fellow Democrats, but Walker’s not buying.

“Most of the problems happened before [Obama] got into office,” said Walker.

Walker also disagrees with Fitzpatrick’s argument that the Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus, failed to create a single private sector job. “A lot of economists think it’s actually helped us from going into a deeper recession,” he said.

Fitzpatrick and Murphy have sparred at a series of debates and in paid advertising. Murphy has enjoyed a significant campaign fundraising advantage, bringing in $3.5 million compared to Fitzpatrick’s $1.4 million. Murphy has also enjoyed an edge in advertising from outside interest groups..

Fitzpatrick, who survived a 2008 bout with colorectal cancer, said he entered the race because he couldn’t stand to sit idle as the country headed in the wrong direction under Democratic leadership, and hopes to help return fiscal restraint to the federal government.

“The federal government cannot create jobs that are permanent, private sector, family-sustaining jobs,” Fitzpatrick said. “What [it] can do is create an atmosphere where in the private sector a small business man or small businesswoman will be able create jobs, build a business, take a risk and put people to work.”

Murphy is quick to bring up Fitzpatrick’s tie-breaking vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement that he says cost Bucks County 5,398 jobs — the number of jobs eligible for retraining, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Fitzpatrick cites U.S. Census statistics that say the U.S. trade balance with the nations making up the agreement went from negative $1.6 billion in 2004 to plus $6 billion in 2008, to counter that argument.

Voters allowed Fitzpatrick just two years in Washington, but Murphy has criticized pay raise and property tax votes the Republican took during his decade as a Bucks County commissioner.

Fitzpatrick has made an issue of Murphy’s vote in favor for health care reform, and has pledged to work to repeal the Democratic plan piece-by piece.

“The health care bill was unpopular in this district when he cast his vote, it is less popular today,” Fitzpatrick said. “…I don’t think he understands health care.”

Murphy said he is proud of that vote, despite some flaws such as a requirement that small businesses fill out more paperwork. He said Republican attacks are distorting the bill, which includes popular provisions that guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

“Just like the Republicans who scared people to go to war for weapons of mass destruction that we never there,” Murphy said, “they’re scaring our seniors with things in the health care bill that aren’t even there.”

Gloria Carlineo, the most formidable of Fitzpatrick’s three primary challengers who has not come out in support of her former rival, predicted a nail-biter. The county’s 64,000 unaffiliated and third-party voters will play a pivotal role, she said.

“It is fully what we expected,” she said. “We have two old foes that don’t particularly seem to like each other very much. We’ve seen a lot of mud-slinging, negative attacks. And voters don’t like that.”

Scott.kraus@mcall.com

610-820-6745

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