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Marino Short on Money, Not Energy, Against Carney

BEAVER SPRINGS, Pa. — The success of a second Republican revolution may rest in this beat-up mobile home named Bessie, 20 feet of faded purple upholstery and wood paneling plagued by bad shocks and unpredictable windshield wipers.

“This is not Bon Jovi’s tour bus,” Tom Marino warns before inviting guests aboard the 1989 Damon Escaper, which doubles as his unofficial campaign headquarters and a rolling billboard that sleeps six.

“We aren’t going to take it anymore,” proclaim the black letters stripped across the passenger’s side.

While Bessie’s owner is a former U.S. attorney, Marino is little-known inside or outside Pennsylvania’s 10th district, a sprawling rural region larger than Connecticut. But it may not matter that his push to build name recognition depends largely on near-constant touring in his aged motor home. Or that he’s cashed in his wife’s pension to help fuel the campaign.

If recent polling is accurate, Marino may be positioned to upset the better-funded, better-known and better-liked Democratic incumbent, Christopher Carney, in this conservative slice of the American heartland.

The race, like several across Pennsylvania, has drawn a personal visit from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in recent days. And both former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have contributed to Marino’s campaign so far.

“If the Republican Party doesn’t win this district, they don’t win the majority,” says Marino’s communications director, Jason Fitzgerald.

Still, having reported just over $11,000 on hand at the end of June, and being unknown by more than 40 percent of the electorate, Marino’s campaign is by no means pulling away from Carney, a Blue Dog Democrat and Navy Reserve commander who pilots Predator drones and isn’t shy about criticizing his opponent.

“I think it’s a tough climate,” says Carney, a Democrat first elected in 2006 by defeating Rep. Don Sherwood, who was embroiled in a sex scandal. “But people don’t know who [Marino] is, to be honest. People just don’t know who he is.”

‘My Kind of Congressman’

Carney moves comfortably among the masses at the Dickson City Days festival Saturday night.

Donning jeans and sneakers, there is little evidence that he is a two-term Congressman 11 weeks from Election Day, aside from a reporter and photographer in tow. There is no pin on his collar, no button or sticker on his short-sleeved shirt and no one distributing campaign paraphernalia to the horde of potential voters flowing through the colored tents in this population center north of Scranton.

But people everywhere know him. They wave and smile and fight the blasting pop music to share friendly small talk.

“Once you get back in the district and look around and talk to folks, we feel better every day,” Carney says, largely dismissing the talk of a Republican takeover in the House that has consumed Washington.

The numbers in this district, however, don’t bode well for Carney, regardless of his opponent’s fundraising challenges. (“I’d rather take a butt kicking than go out and ask people for money,” Marino says. “This is a rural district. People don’t have money. They’re losing their jobs.”)

In 2008, Barack Obama lost the 10th district by 9 points. Four years earlier, Sen. John Kerry lost by 20. The voters here largely support gun rights and oppose abortion, as does Carney, but they also dislike the health care overhaul that Carney supported.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama have favorability ratings in the 10th district of just 20 percent and 35 percent respectively, according to polling released Tuesday by the conservative group American Action Forum. That’s the same poll that gave Marino a 52 percent to 37 percent lead.

The Carney campaign dismissed it as “a partisan poll done for special interests; of course its results are going to be dramatically skewed.”

On Saturday night in Dickson City, however, there are only friendly faces. Larry West, vice president of the local city council, is among them.

“Him being in a primarily Republican district, it’s always a challenge,” he says of Carney. “But he’s moderate. He’s definitely my kind of Congressman.”

West acknowledges that Carney’s support for the health care overhaul is troubling for some voters.

“I think a lot of people see that as a handout,” he says, adding that there is widespread confusion about the complicated legislation. “I don’t understand it myself.”

‘A Vote of Conscience’

Nearly 120 miles from Dickson City, health care is the focus in the back of Rayauda’s Restaurant, where Marino sips a chocolate milkshake at the head of a table of nine supporters.

He’s already toured the Snyder County courthouse and a local woodworking company Thursday, and he’s supposed to have Bessie ready for the nearby Hillbilly Fever Days Parade in half an hour.

“It’s clear that Obama is lost and he has no idea where he’s going besides socialism,” Marino says, telling the GOP loyalists that he’d like to repeal the health care law. But he concedes that it’s unlikely to happen without enough Republicans to override a presidential veto.

Further, Marino suggests there are some good provisions in the bill: “We need coverage for pre-existing conditions … whether Republicans like it or not,” he says.

Marino has a personal stake in the debate. A two-time cancer survivor, he cannot find an insurance company that will sell him coverage. Even with a history of cancer, he says he only visits a doctor if he “absolutely has to.”

It was car insurance that covered his medical bills when a drunken driver crossed the center line in late spring and hit his truck head on. Marino spent time in the intensive care unit with kidney problems before being released.

Notified of his opponent’s predicament, Carney laughs incredulously.

“He opposes the health care reform, even though he can’t get insurance? He should be thrilled that in less than four years he’ll be able to get insurance,” Carney says. “Pre-existing conditions will no longer be a disqualifier.”

Carney says he doesn’t regret his vote to support the overhaul but blames the Obama administration for doing “a horrible job of talking about health care reform.”

His message to voters is simple: “I tell them that for me this was a vote of conscience,” says Carney, also a cancer survivor whose wife has been battling breast cancer in recent weeks. “When you think about how many millions of Americans don’t have the opportunity to get the health care that we’ve got, whatever we can do to fix the system to get more health care provision for our citizens, I think we need to do that.”

Politics and Common Sense

Washington Republicans do not share Marino’s enthusiasm.

The National Republican Congressional Committee did not target the 10th district as part of a $22 million fall media blitz announced Tuesday targeting vulnerable Democratic incumbents. And Carney notes that his race has dropped off many lists of top flip opportunities.

A strong fundraising performance, however, could shift the tide.

“I’d resist the temptation to cast judgment on the initial buy. Consider this is a down payment on what is to come in the fall,” one NRCC official said. “The playing field is expanding, and we plan to be on offense as we continue to close the financial gap in the final weeks.”

But Carney, who says he has more than $1 million in the bank, launched a $60,000 television buy last week. He will be on TV from now through the election — save the one week he’ll serve on active duty in September.

“I may work in Washington, but I’ll never live there,” he says in the 30-second spot that avoids going after Marino directly. “There’s too much politics and not enough common sense.”

Expect the tone to become far more negative should the Carney campaign believe Marino is a legitimate contender.

While waiting for the fireworks to begin at the Dickson City festival, Carney questions his opponent’s “integrity and honor.” He also suggests that the national Republican establishment doesn’t believe in Marino.

Indeed, it was less than eight months ago that the chairman of the NRCC joined Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in trying to persuade the Congressman to become a Republican.

Carney, meanwhile, will be fending off attacks as well.

Although Marino, with limited resources, will try to paint his opponent as walking in lock step with the House leadership, Carney says he has been consistently ranked as among the most independent Democratic Members.

In 2009, for example, Congressional Quarterly found he voted with his party 84 percent of the time. The Washington Post determined that through this year, that percentage jumped to 91 percent.

On the ground in the 10th district, local Republicans fear that Carney’s independent streak has some appeal to voters regardless of their political affiliations.

“I know a lot of Republicans that are going to vote for Carney,” says Joseph Kantz, a Republican commissioner in Snyder County, standing alongside Bessie before the Hillbilly Fever Days parade.

But things are different this year. The local Republican establishment, divided in the 2008 election, has united behind Marino. And Carney has never been forced to defend a voting record this unpopular, Kantz says.

“It’s going to be a very tough race for Tom,” he adds, just before Bessie rolls into formation and the parade begins.

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