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In Pa., Two GOP Moderates Defy Trends

Pennsylvania Republican Reps. Charlie Dent and Jim Gerlach should be running scared this cycle.

Republican candidates in GOP-leaning districts across the country find themselves trailing in the polls, and Gerlach and Dent represent districts that Democrats won in 2004. What’s more, their southeastern Pennsylvania seats have shown a sizable increase in Democratic voter registrations this cycle.

But instead of running scared, these two Republicans are running hard. After spending the last couple of cycles fending off top-tier challengers in their districts, Dent and Gerlach are also the only two House Republicans representing Democratic-leaning districts that are not targeted by the flush national Democratic party this year. Despite their districts’ Democratic tendencies, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure arm has not spent substantially in either district.

Dent faces Allentown Democratic Party Chairwoman Sam Bennett, who had $245,000 in the bank at the end of September compared with Dent’s $762,000. Gerlach faces businessman Bob Roggio (D), who is the only candidate running in a majority Democratic-leaning district not on the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list of promising candidates.

In a tough environment for Republicans such as this cycle, Dent and Gerlach are running aggressive campaigns that might be expected of candidates who have narrowly survived re-election bids.

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) carried the presidential contest in the 15th district by about 700 votes. Dent campaign manager Shawn Millan acknowledged that it’s a tough district for Republicans to win.

“It’s not an opponent that we’re campaigning against. … It’s a Kerry district,” Millan said. “It’s more a registration situation that we’re working against. He’s trying to get every vote he could possibly get.”

Most recently, Bennett’s campaign asked a local television station to remove her words from a taped television debate before the program aired. In the debate, Bennett incorrectly named two local banks that she thought were failing — comments that could have consequences with the bank’s investors if aired.

In response to the removed comments, which were made inaudible when the debate aired, Dent held a conference call during which he attacked Bennett for running a “fact-free” campaign.

“I’m pretty sure there are no other candidates on the Red to Blue list who had a warning before a debate that there are inaccurate statements that follow,” Millan said.

Public polling for the race has been scarce, but national Democrats are not yet willing to back up their rhetoric with cash in the 15th district. Although Bennett is on the Red to Blue list, the committee’s independent expenditure arm has not put a dime into the district so far.

Bennett campaign manager Josh Levin said the 15th district contest would be a late-breaking race. Though the national party might not be investing in the race yet, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) resources in the region are proof that Democrats are interested, Levin said.

“I think that certainly the Obama campaign is putting a lot of time and effort in the area,” Levin said. “We’ve worked with them, to the extent that we’re able … to bring out more new voters, more Democrats, more students, more people who are worried about losing their homes. I think if you were on the ground here you’d see that there’s a substantial investment by the Obama camp and our campaign.”

Obama is expected to do well in the region, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough downballot votes for Bennett to ride his coattails to Congress.

By comparison, Gerlach holds an even more Democratic-friendly district, which Kerry won with 51 percent of the vote in 2004.

“You know, the interesting thing is whoever our opponent is does not change the way the Congressman campaigns,” said Gerlach’s political director, Mark Campbell. “He has has a ridiculous busy schedule with meetings, official meetings and also his campaign visits.”

Even if GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) trails Obama slightly in the suburban Philadelphia district, McCain will still be better for Gerlach than some of the names that have topped his ticket in past cycles. In 2006, Gerlach ran 10 points ahead of defeated Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and 17 points ahead of the GOP gubernatorial nominee, according to Campbell.

“It’s fascinating to note that the blind rabbi running against [New Jersey Republican Rep.] Scott Garrett is on Red to Blue, but Bob Roggio is not,” Campbell said. “He’s just been recognized as an awful, awful candidate.”

Roggio’s campaign manager, Liz Conroy, downplayed that Roggio has not been added to Red to Blue.

“I wouldn’t categorize it as disappointing,” Conroy said. “Regardless of what the national party is doing, we have a serious chance to win here.”

Roggio had $216,000 in the bank at the end of September to challenge Gerlach, who had $700,000. Conroy pointed out that Democrats have increased their voter-registration advantage over Republicans to at least 12,000. Conroy also said that there has been no nonpartisan polling in the district since June, which is also the last time the Roggio campaign surveyed the district.

A Gerlach poll from Aug. 19-21 of 400 likely voters gave the Congressman a 28-point advantage over Roggio. The Public Opinion Strategies poll had an error margin of 4.9 points.

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