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Making A Dent In Pa.-15

Moving aggressively to unite behind a top prospect in one of their most vulnerable open seats, Congressional Republicans are set to unofficially kick off the race for Pennsylvania’s 15th district tonight by hosting two events for the state lawmaker they want to succeed Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

State Sen. Charlie Dent (R), described as the “heir apparent” to the party’s nomination, will be the featured guest at back-to-back meet-and-greet events at the Capitol Hill Club.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) is hosting one reception for Dent, sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce PAC. A separate event is being co-hosted by all of the GOP Members in the Pennsylvania delegation except Toomey, who is mounting a primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter (R) next year.

While at least one other Republican, Lehigh County Commissioner Joe Pascuzzo, is considering running in the swing district, national and state party leaders are sending signals that they are clearly unified behind Dent.

The NRCC is scheduled to release a poll today showing Dent with an 8 point lead over state Sen. Lisa Boscola, the only potential Democratic candidate who has publicly expressed interest in the race.

The poll, conducted March 17-19 for the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee by The Tarrance Group, showed Dent with 47 percent compared with 39 percent for Boscola. Fourteen percent of the 300 likely voters surveyed were undecided.

The survey also found that Dent would beat Pascuzzo in a hypothetical primary, 64 percent to 8 percent.

“What is clear from this survey is that Charlie Dent has overwhelming appeal among people who know him, and that makes him very well-positioned to win the 15th district, should he decide to formally enter the race,” Reynolds said.

In an interview on Tuesday, Dent said that he planned to form an exploratory committee in the next two weeks.

“I’ve certainly been speaking to a lot of people at the local, state and national levels,” Dent said. “Frankly, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.”

But regardless of the poll’s findings, Dent sought to dispel any notion that he would have an easy time winning.

“As far as I’m concerned, polls are all interesting and nice and we’re certainly pleased when the results are good, but there are only really two ways to run — hard and scared,” Dent said. “And that’s what I would do. I would run hard and scared.”

The swing seat, anchored by Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, was not changed dramatically during the 2001 remapping process. Then-Vice President Al Gore (D) would have narrowly won the district in the 2000 presidential race. Before Toomey won the seat in 1998, the district had been represented for three terms by Rep. Paul McHale (D).

Both Dent and Boscola represent similarly marginal seats in the state Senate, and both have represented about two-thirds of the district at one time or another.

Dent, 42, was first elected to the state Senate in 1998. His current district, based in Democratic-leaning Allentown, was altered to boost the Republican performance when legislative lines were redrawn in 2001. Although Democrats still hold a slight registration advantage in the district, Dent won re-election last year with 65 percent.

Republicans also point to the favorable/unfavorable ratings of both candidates as evidence of Dent’s strong position in the early survey.

The poll found that Boscola had a 2-1 favorable/unfavorable image ratio among voters surveyed, while Dent had a 9-1 favorable/unfavorable ratio, even though Boscola’s name recognition was higher than Dent’s.

“The fact that even partisan Democrats view Charlie Dent more favorably than Lisa Boscola has to be very troubling for national Democrats hoping to win back this district,” Reynolds said. “It’ll be an uphill task for Democrats as they try to convince people to invest in her campaign.”

Boscola, however, had a different take on the poll results, noting Tuesday that they show there is the potential for a tight race.

“I think what they’re trying to do is get me out of [the race],” Boscola said. “With this poll, it’s giving me more incentive because definitely I can win if I run.”

Boscola has had some experience winning tough races, and she said she has been the underdog in every race she has won. She first won a seat in the state House during the nationwide Republican landslide in 1994 and in 1998, she defeated a 10-year House incumbent to win her current seat.

While Boscola maintained that she still hasn’t made up her mind about running, she plans to form an exploratory committee in the next few weeks and conduct at least one poll before making a decision.

She also plans to meet with party leaders in Washington, D.C., although she indicated she’s not looking to be anointed once she arrives.

“When I go to Washington I’m not going down there for permission to run,” she said. “I’m going to make that decision myself.”

But after a cycle in which several Democratic candidates faced scrutiny over past personal and business indiscretions, national Democrats may have reason to be leery of Boscola.

In July 2000, the 40-year-old lawmaker was arrested and charged with driving under the influence after tests showed her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.

Boscola immediately checked into a Maryland drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and later called the episode a blessing in disguise. After 26 days at the center, she realized she was an alcoholic and vowed to never drink again.

Three months before her DUI arrest, the Allentown Morning Call wrote a 3,700-word profile of Boscola that chronicled her colorful and controversial social life (including her drinking habits).

Armed with this information, Republicans targeted Boscola last year, but she won re-election with 63 percent.

While not specifically addressing the arrest, Boscola said issues, not image, would be the basis of her campaign if she runs.

“I’m not here to win a popularity contest,” Boscola said. “This is going to be a campaign based on issues and that’s what is going to drive people to vote. Not whose image is a little bit better than the other. … Image alone doesn’t win the race.”

Still, there are indications that some Democrats are privately worried that Boscola may end up as the party’s nominee.

“Nobody’s going to stop looking for the ideal candidate until we’re a little further down the road,” said one state Democrat.

Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney, also a state Representative, said it was too premature to “anoint anybody.”

“There’s been no coronation,” he said. “Other people are continuing to look at the seat to try to make the most thoughtful assessment of who would in fact be the best candidate to take Senator Dent on, assuming he wins the primary.”

Rooney was being pushed to run for the seat by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the dean of the Pennsylvania delegation, but he opted for the state party job instead.

Among the other potential candidates whose names are being floated in Democratic circles: former Bethlehem Mayor Don Cunningham, Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas Wallitsch and state Reps. Jennifer Mann and Bob Freeman. Sources also said that at least one person in the private sector who has the ability to self-fund a race is seriously considering running.

“I think there will be some good candidates [who] come forward,” said a leading Democratic consultant in the state. “It’s very early in the process. I think people just now are starting to focus on it.”

But regardless of who the Democratic nominee is, the consultant said, the “bread and butter” blue-collar district will see a competitive race next year.

“That district is going to be a flip a coin, 52-48 race either way come Election Day,” the consultant said.

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