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In Closely Fought House Race, Trash May Be Tipping Point

Despite a Republican poll that gave Gerlach a nine-point lead in Pennsylvania’s 6th District, political commentators continue to say the contest is very close, which is where the garbage enters. In the city of Reading, a critical bit of urban electorate in the largely suburban district, a vote on garbage removal may play an unexpectedly key role.

The city’s residents are faced this fall by an ordinance to decide whether to continue using private trash haulers — a few of whom are in very public battles with the mayor — or turn the whole system over to the city.

It is an issue that has nothing to do with those running for Congress but perhaps everything to do with who will win.

Reading is a city that is three-to-one Democrat in a county, Berks, that was the key to Gerlach’s razor-thin victory two years ago over Murphy.

“If he’s going to win at all, he has to win here,” Thomas Brogan, a political science professor at Albright College in Reading, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

So the trash fight in Reading, which has dominated local election coverage and even made its way into regional blogs, could hold the key to the big question mark — voter turnout.

Democrats are brimming with optimism, saying the increased turnout could more than wipe out the 6,300-vote margin of victory Gerlach eked out in 2004.

Not that Democrats are counting solely on garbage to deliver them this critical seat. Advocacy groups like EMILY’s List, which supports female candidates for office and has endorsed Murphy, are helping the candidate rally voters and organizing a Get Out the Vote effort.

“It’s going to be a matter of who can close strongest,” EMILY’s List campaign services director Martha McKenna told the National Journal’s Congress Daily.

Gerlach continues to try and focus on local support, hailing endorsements from local fire chiefs and teachers as part of his effort to cobble together a winning coalition.

“He worked hard for us and delivered results,” Glenn Allison, president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association, told reporters. “We will work hard for him.”

Although much of the advertising onslaught has yet to hit the airwaves in this race, at least some analysts are saying it still may be the national issues that, in the end, spell trouble for Gerlach.

Larry Sabato, one of the go-to prognosticators of politics, has already made his call: “As ‘Mr. 51 percent,’ Rep. Jim Gerlach has always stood out as the most vulnerable (unindicted) Republican from the beginning of the 2006 cycle. … The Crystal Ball doubts that Gerlach will be able to hold his tenuous 2004 majority this time around, and despite the incumbent’s best efforts, gives this race the first lean-Democratic takeover rating of the year.”

Even Tom Reynolds, the New York congressman who leads the Republican efforts to win U.S. House contests this fall, concedes the Philadelphia area is a “political battle zone,” according to the Associated Press.

And with little more than a month to go, both parties will be focusing on everything from trash pickup to the war on terror to try to pick up votes.