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Battle Brews in Pa.’s 10th

With no shortage of Republicans clamoring to challenge freshman Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.), U.S. Attorney Tom Marino is the consensus choice of GOP power brokers, and whether he runs could prove an early test of their ability to recruit preferred candidates into targeted races.

Carney defeated former Rep. Don Sherwood (R) in the conservative 10th district of Northeastern Pennsylvania largely as a result of the incumbent’s personal foibles, leading Republicans to believe Carney is vulnerable against a scandal-free opponent. The strong Republican bent of the seat has elicited the interest of several legitimate GOP contenders — but Marino is the one Republicans want.

“This is a bit overwhelming for me because of all of the encouragement that I’m getting,” Marino said late last week during a telephone interview. “I’m seriously considering it.”

Democrats had nothing disparaging to say about Marino’s character or record as the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. But they telegraphed that they might try to tie him to the current brouhaha surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

And, contradicting Marino himself, Democrats are claiming he does not live in the district. Pennsylvania law does not require Congressional candidates or Members to live in the districts they are running in or representing, but Marino said he double-checked, and that he does in fact live within the seat’s boundaries.

“Republicans must be getting desperate if they need someone to quit his job and move into the district to run in a crowded primary,” insisted a Democratic operative familiar with the seat.

A second Democratic source also contended that Marino doesn’t live in the district. But a Republican operative familiar with the district said an examination of election returns confirms that Marino’s Cogan Station residence does in fact fall within the 10th.

Marino, a baker by trade who did not enter college until he was 30, has visited Washington, D.C., twice in the past three weeks for meetings with Republican leaders about a potential Congressional bid, meeting with nearly 60 people, according to his own tally. Sources say Marino met with White House aides and is being courted heavily by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), among others.

And signaling that Marino could garner the support of both conservatives and moderates, he is well-liked by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), both of whom recommended him for his U.S. attorney position while he was still serving as the district attorney of Lycoming County.

But because even the launch of an exploratory committee would require Marino to resign his current position as a presidential appointee, he is weighing his options privately and carefully hedging his comments as to his political viability — as well as that of Carney’s.

“I hear good things about [Carney], and I think he’ll work very hard, and no one should underestimate him,” Marino said.

Marino did say that he believes he needs to make a decision on running by mid-summer in order to allow himself to compete to win, should he decide to enter the contest.

Marino acknowledged that the idea of serving in Congress appeals to him and that he likes Washington, D.C. But Marino has an 8-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, and said he cannot afford to move his family here, leaving him to decide if being separated from his wife and children for extended periods of time is an adjustment his family can absorb.

Given the GOP leanings of the district, as many as 15 Republicans have expressed an interest in running for this seat, including many whom the NRCC would be perfectly happy to have as the nominee against Carney. But Democrats are confident that Carney can survive what is expected to be a heavily targeted and very competitive general election.

This week, Carney is holding four town hall meetings in four of the 14 counties that are part of the 10th district, with plans to hold a town hall meeting in each of the remaining 10 counties before Election Day 2008.

Some Republicans concede Carney’s personality is a good fit for the seat and suggest that if he votes in line with his district’s interests, he could be in good shape next year. Democrats say he is working hard to build a close relationship with his constituents and say there is little difference between them and Carney on issues that matter, such as raising the minimum wage.

“Congressman Carney hit the ground running focusing on the issues people in Northeast Pennsylvania care about,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Carrie James said. “He will be back in 2008 to continue his work for Pennsylvania families.”

Just how vulnerable Carney is against an ethically clean candidate remains to be seen.

The Democrat clearly benefited after it was disclosed that Sherwood, who is married, had an affair and then settled a lawsuit lodged by his mistress alleging physical abuse.

“Chris Carney does not seem to be making a lot of mistakes. He’s working hard, making the rounds — he seems to be doing everything he should be doing,” said a Republican source who is familiar with the district. “I don’t know if his voting record will back up his personality, but his personality seems to be a good fit for the district.”

But this same Republican referred to Marino as a top-tier candidate, explaining that both his personal story and his name identification district-wide would make him a formidable challenger. The NRCC, meanwhile, sees a big bull’s-eye on Carney, who is in the DCCC’s Frontline program for vulnerable candidates.

The Frontline program provides these candidates, many of whom are freshmen from Republican-leaning districts, with additional fundraising and operational assistance.

The NRCC has been targeting Carney, lobbing direct press hits into his district via local newspapers and talk radio. The committee claims Carney has voted in lockstep with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and says that will cost him next year.

“Bringing home a report card with an A-plus grade from Nancy Pelosi might earn Chris Carney kudos from his liberal colleagues in Washington, but by putting the priorities of the Democrat leadership first, he is failing to represent the needs of his constituents,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “It doesn’t pay to be the Speaker’s pet.”

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