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Democrats Hope to Make English’s Seat Competitive

On the prowl for more Northeastern Republicans after picking off several last year, Democrats have their sights set on Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) and hope to convince Erie County Councilman Kyle Foust (D) to take him on.

English won re-election in November with 54 percent of the vote — his weakest showing in a decade — on the strength of a 22-1 campaign expenditure advantage over his Democratic challenger, Steve Porter, a retired school administrator and frequent candidate.

Those factors, combined with English’s vote last week siding with President Bush on the Iraq War supplemental funding bill, have Democrats believing the Congressman is vulnerable against a solid, well-financed challenger.

“Democrats will have a strong candidate to run against Phil English in 2008,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Carrie James said Monday. “He is a reliable rubber stamp for President Bush’s failed strategy in Iraq … He’s out of step with northwestern Pennsylvania.”

The heavily industrial 3rd district leans slightly Republican in White House elections. But the Keystone State was among the most vulnerable in the nation in the previous election cycle and promises to be again in 2008; Democrats picked up four House seats there in 2006 and will target at least three others this time. Republicans, in contrast, believe they have a shot at recapturing some of the seats they lost last year.

To oust English, Democrats are talking to at least four potential candidates. In addition to Foust, they’re high on Chris Mong, appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell (D) to a post in the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development; Christine Riehl, also a Rendell appointee; and Porter, who ran against English in 2004 and 2006 and also lost four bids for the New York state Senate.

In the previous cycle, English outspent Porter $1.4 million to $63,000.

Foust said in telephone interview Monday he is considering running for Congress next year. The Erie County councilman is running for re-election to his current post this year, and said he would not publicize his 2008 plans until after November. Foust is running against nominal opposition and expects to be re-elected.

“I’ve had too many people approach me — both Democrats and Republicans — that it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t consider it,” said Foust, a career services director at Mercy Hurst College. “English is certainly vulnerable.”

One Republican operative familiar with the district dismissed the notion that Foust would give English a serious challenge, and suggested that the DCCC ultimately will forgo focusing on the 3rd district in favor of spending money to play defense in at least three other Pennsylvania seats.

Democrats “have their work cut out for them,” this GOP operative said. “I think this is in part braggadocio.”

The 3rd district has about 14,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, although independents make up a significant portion of the electorate. But Bush narrowly won the seat in 2000 and 2004, and Republicans say Democrats are simply wrong when they contend that English is vulnerable.

Politically, Republicans say his votes on the Iraq War will not damage him at the ballot box — and they charge that it is unseemly for Democrats to play politics with the issue.

And GOP operatives point to English’s performance in the previous cycle, when he ran about 15 points ahead of then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Lynn Swann among the district’s voters, as proof that he can withstand a tough race — should one materialize.

Operationally, Republicans say English is in good shape because he does not take his campaigns for granted and does what is necessary to run a strong race. At one time in the running to head the National Republican Congressional Committee this cycle, English can handle competition, Republicans say.

English raised almost $165,000 in the first quarter to finish with $125,000 on hand.

“I think Pennsylvania 3 would be more than an uphill battle for the Democrats — it would be Mount Everest,” NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said. “Rep. English is a good candidate.”

Republicans already have made it clear they intend to target Rep. Jason Altmire (D) in the 4th district and Rep. Christopher Carney (D) in the 10th district, both of which lean Republican but were flipped by Democrats last year. The GOP also is talking about going after Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in the 7th district and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) in the 8th district.

But Democrats believe they have a shot against English, Rep. Tim Murphy (R), and Rep. Jim Gerlach (R), who has won 51 percent of the vote in all three of his elections.

Republicans say they plan to go on the offensive in Pennsylvania more than the Democrats. They contend that once the DCCC is done protecting freshman Members throughout the Northeast, including those seats in the expensive Philadelphia media market and districts in New Hampshire and New York, Pennsylvania’s 3rd district will rank low among the Democrats’ priorities.

“We have a real opportunity to be competitive in Pennsylvania,” Shutley said.

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