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House Candidates in Pennsylvania Battle It Out Over Iraq, Social Issues

November 6, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: We are, indeed, because now we go to suburban Philadelphia, where Gwen Ifill updates the races of three House Republicans and the Democrats who hope to replace them.

GWEN IFILL: Sometimes, at the very end of a very tough campaign, it pays to ask for every last vote.

JOE SESTAK (D), Candidate for U.S. House: I’m Joe Sestak, retired Navy Admiral, running for U.S. Congress. May I give you one of these? I’d love to have your support.

WOMAN: You may. OK.

JOE SESTAK: Thank you.

WOMAN: You’re welcome.

CANDIDATE: How are you?

WOMAN: Cold hands.

CANDIDATE: Yes, me, too. Cold toes, as well. Yes, you wouldn’t want to shake my toes.

LOIS MURPHY (D), Candidate for U.S. House: Hi, how are you?

MAN: Good.

LOIS MURPHY: Good to see you, Lois Murphy.

MAN: I know.

LOIS MURPHY: I hope you guys are coming out to vote on Tuesday.

MAN: Absolutely.

WOMAN: Hi, good luck!

LOIS MURPHY: All right, great.

GWEN IFILL: And sometimes it doesn’t pay.

REP. MIKE FITZPATRICK (R), Pennsylvania: How are you doing? Mike Fitzpatrick running for Congress.

MAN: I know. I’m not going to vote for you.

GWEN IFILL: But these Philadelphia suburbs may hold the key to control of the House of Representatives.

CANDIDATE: Have a good one.

GWEN IFILL: Party leaders know that, and they’re fighting to the bitter end. Three incumbents, three challengers, $3 million spent on each campaign by the national parties. But in the final days of this midterm election, all sides agree that it all comes down to the intensity wars.

RALLY LEADER: Let’s give a Philadelphia welcome! Come on, I can’t hear you. Let’s give a big Philadelphia welcome!

GWEN IFILL: Democrats tried to take advantage of that intensity this weekend, descending on southeastern Pennsylvania. Former Senator John Edwards, former Vice President Al Gore, and Nancy Pelosi, who could become the first woman speaker of the House, were all here.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), House Minority Leader: Are we ready for a great Democratic victory?

Supporters campaigning

GWEN IFILL: And popular Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who has been crisscrossing the country on behalf of other Democrats, was here, too.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: The candidates here in Pennsylvania are standard-bearers for what is going on all across the country.

GWEN IFILL: National Republican leaders visited, too, if not in the same numbers. Arizona Senator John McCain was the only one to make it here this weekend. He campaigned for incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick.

What's your sense about how this election is going for Republicans nationwide?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Very tough. Very tough, and very close. The reason why I came here today is because this is one of these bellwether races. And we're going to be up late, I'm sure, on Tuesday night. It's very tough.

We've done a lot of things right, and we've done some things wrong. We've got a very strong economy, unemployment at an all-time low. America is safer than it was. And we have -- but we're having trouble getting our message through. There's no doubt about it.

GWEN IFILL: When the NewsHour visited these districts last June, the candidates were already in the midst of a vigorous campaign. The difference now is that voters are paying attention.

JOAN WIDER, Campaign Volunteer: I've been doing phone calls. My voice has laryngitis. I've walked the streets and knocked on doors. I only had one door closed on me. I had many doors opened, and I care about the future and our country.

Voters' dissatisfaction

GWEN IFILL: Democrats and some Republicans say they don't like what they see in Washington.

JOAN NEAL: The large issues for me is just we need a change. We just need a change in Washington.

FRED HAMILTON: What I think is a lot of people are looking more for Democrats, because the way that the country is running, it's really -- and it's not about black or white. It's really bad, period, you know? And I think that people want a change.

GWEN IFILL: But Republican candidates are counting on voters who don't like what they're seeing in this campaign.

RICHARD STAEDTLER: I hold traditional values. Mike is anti-abortion. He's not pro-gay marriage, like the Democrat Party. And I think those things are good. I think Mike is reasonable on the war. I think he wants to get out of Iraq, but he's not going to cut and run.

BARBARA KELLY: President Bush isn't running, and I don't know why he's in the public eye so much, because to me, they have nothing else to criticize, so they bring him into it. I think it's gone far beyond anything I have ever seen, this election, and I'm sickened.

GWEN IFILL: The incumbent in the most severe political trouble is the one who has spent the longest in Washington, 10-term Republican Curt Weldon.

JOE SESTAK: How are you?

GWEN IFILL: Democrats continued to pump money into the district on behalf of his opponent, Joe Sestak, even as national Republicans redirect their spending elsewhere.

REP. CURT WELDON (R), Pennsylvania: We've never seen that kind of money in this county in the county's history. In the 10 times I've run for Congress before this, if you total up all the money I raised, it wasn't as much as I had to raise this time, and I'm still being outspent by my opponent by a two-to-one margin.

The candidates

GWEN IFILL: Weldon, who won two years ago by 19 points, has experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune. He's recently come under federal investigation for allegedly steering contracts to an adult daughter. And Weldon accuses Sestak, who spent decades living outside the district while in the military, of being an outsider who has brought other outsiders in to campaign for him.

CURT WELDON: Make no mistake about it: They're all over the district tonight. They're not our people; they're not our neighbors; they're people that are hired guns. They've been brought in to steal this seat. They'll be the ones at our polling places. They'll be the ones trying to push their agenda. They're giving them all maps because they don't know where the towns are. They'll be telling them what to do.

GWEN IFILL: Sestak has a difference diagnosis.

JOE SESTAK: What's different this time is the issue of Iraq. It has become the number-one and number-two question wherever I go. Iraq in isolation probably wouldn't be as high on the agenda, but it's that they see these can concerns at home, and then they look across the seas and say, "What are we doing in this tragic misadventure?"

JOE SESTAK: Secure our borders first.

GWEN IFILL: Republicans, like Terry Renzetty and Kay Fishfold (ph), are Sestak converts.

TERRY RENZETTY, Sestak Supporter: I voted for Bush, but I am so disappointed in what he has done in Iraq. That's a mess. I want us out of there. He is so wishy-washy, I'm not pleased at all. I probably would vote in the next presidential election for a Democrat.

WOMAN: I'm very sorry that I voted for him.

GWEN IFILL: Typically, Republican districts like this one here in Bucks County may be the best indicator of any building wave come Tuesday night. The reasoning? At Pennsylvania, so goes the rest of the nation.

GWEN IFILL: Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, the one-term incumbent, and Democrat Patrick Murphy, the 33-year-old Iraq war veteran, are pulling no punches in the 8th District race.

CAMPAIGN AD NARRATOR: If you're on the border with Patrick Murphy, consider this: Murphy supports the plan that would let illegal immigrants get Social Security benefits, and we would foot the bill.

CAMPAIGN AD NARRATOR: He says he's independent, but in Congress Mike Fitzpatrick follows the herd. Fitzpatrick supported Bush's plan to privatize Social Security.

A Democratic wave?

GWEN IFILL: When people talk about a prospect of a Democratic wave, do you worry?

REP. MIKE FITZPATRICK: Well, you know what, I worry in every election. I worry if there's a wave or not a wave. I worry that people will come out and vote in the first instance. I worry that people get to hear your message through the clutter of the campaign commercials and the sound bites.

I worry that I'm doing a good job articulating my message, and so I always worry. This is a more difficult year than most; there's no doubt about it, especially for incumbents. But I'm a brand-new member of Congress. I'm there less than two years.

GWEN IFILL: Now, when people talk to you now, are they saying different things than they were saying at the beginning of the campaign?

PATRICK MURPHY (D), Candidate for U.S. House: It's as if they are repeating my talking points.


PATRICK MURPHY: When I talk about change, and they say -- you know, before I'm like, "Hi, I'm Patrick Murphy, I'm a Iraq war veteran, I'm a Democrat running for Congress," "I'm voting for you, I need a change." Or, "I voted Republican my whole life, and you're going to be the first Democrat I ever voted for." Or, you know, "I'm Republican, but when I voted last time, I wasn't voted for an open-ended commitment in Iraq. I wasn't open to have this debt ceiling at $8 trillion. I wasn't voting to privatize Social Security." They're like, "I've had enough. I'm voting for you."

GWEN IFILL: Is it "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq"

PATRICK MURPHY: That's the number-one issue, by far.

GWEN IFILL: Lois Murphy, who very nearly defeated incumbent Jim Gerlach two years ago, is also counting on voter discontent to take her over the top. She and other Democrats are getting a last-minute boost from popular Governor Ed Rendell, who with Senate nominee Bob Casey, Jr., appear to have their races against Republicans Lynn Swann and Rick Santorum well in hand.

GOV. ED RENDELL (D), Pennsylvania: So don't let anybody sit at home because Rendell and Casey are going to win, because Rendell and Casey need help. And we need all of these candidates to win. And that wave, that wave, if it's as big as you think it is, everybody on this stage can win, every single one of us can win. So don't let up! Don't let up!

GWEN IFILL: And if Rendell has his way, the Keystone State will be leading that wave for the rest of the country.