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BETHLEHEM, Pa. — It is an unwelcome distinction, but one he cannot hide from.

In what will be a resurgent year for the Grand Old Party from coast to coast, Rep. Charlie Dent is among just nine Republican incumbents who may be in trouble. That’s according to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has ranked Pennsylvania’s 15th district as one of the few in play this fall.

“I realize that I’m one of their top targets,” Dent said late last week in a makeshift campaign office in the heart of the Christmas City. “But if I’m one of their top targets, they’re in trouble. Seriously. They have problems.”

Dent may have cause for optimism.

He enjoys the traditional advantages of incumbency — a national fundraising network and high name recognition, among others. But the three-term Congressman is facing someone the Democratic establishment believes is a budding star — Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, a fresh-faced and well-funded 40-year-old former businessman.

He is a self-proclaimed “practical, centrist, pro-business Democrat.” And while that may be a mouthful, moderation plays well in this Lehigh Valley district.

This is a working-class region that has come back to life since the closure of Bethlehem Steel, once the nation’s second-largest steel producer, just 15 years ago. It is a place President Barack Obama carried by 13 points in 2008, and where both John Kerry and Al Gore eked out 1-point victories.

And it is a place where Dent, an acknowledged centrist, declines to list his party affiliation on much of his campaign literature.

“Charlie Dent: an independent leader” is the slogan that graces bumper stickers and buttons.

“Around here, people don’t pay as much attention to party labels,” he said. “They care more about where you stand on the issues than party affiliations, believe it or not. I’m their representative to Washington. I’m not Washington’s representative to them.”

Such is the challenge for Dent, an incumbent who must fight to redefine his Congressional service in an election cycle where incumbency has become a liability.

It’s a struggle Democrats know well.

High Dollars, High Stakes

It was not Obama, but the more popular President Bill Clinton who traveled to Allentown last Tuesday to stump for Callahan.

Joe Mitlyng was there.

The 68-year-old retired health care administrator almost seemed ashamed to admit that he paid just $125 to attend the gathering in a local lawyer’s backyard.

“I must have gotten a discount,” he says sheepishly, standing among about 75 Callahan supporters who have gathered Saturday afternoon at Upper Macungie Park to share hamburgers and cupcakes with the mayor.

The discounted ticket price, however, works with Callahan’s stump speech at this outdoor picnic on the edge of Route 100.

It’s common knowledge among these Democrats that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) visited with about 150 Republican donors the night before at the brick estate of a local doctor. The minimum ticket price was $500 per person, although those who wished to have their picture taken with Boehner paid at least $1,000.

“We had 500 people in a tent,” Callahan says of the Clinton event, noting that most paid about $150 to attend. The Dent fundraiser, however, attracted “a small amount of folks in suits listening to the tan one talk about how he’s gong to move the country backwards.”

Despite the lower ticket prices, Clinton’s visit generated $145,000 for the Callahan campaign, which reported nearly $989,000 on hand at the end of June compared with Dent’s $1.04 million. Boehner, meanwhile, produced $50,000 for the centrist Republican.

And although Callahan and Dent have raised roughly the same amount, the source of the funds has become an issue.

The incumbent Dent has raised more than $690,000, or 40 percent of his overall fundraising for the cycle, from political action committees. The list is topped by business interests such as the energy company PPL Corp. and cable giant Comcast.

“He has lost touch with his district. I think Wall Street has enough Congressmen,” Callahan charges once he arrives at the picnic. “I think the Lehigh Valley needs a Congressman.” Callahan has taken more than $253,000, or 18 percent of his fundraising, from PACs.

Callahan’s supporters applaud after the shot at Dent. It’s one of several times the mayor is interrupted by applause during his remarks.

He tells the story of Bethlehem’s revitalization since he took office in 2004: It has become the safest city in Pennsylvania, and is ranked among the top 100 places to live and do business by separate national publications. And a casino that stands in the former location of the bankrupt Bethlehem Steel now employs 1,000 people, he says.

After Callahan speaks and answers questions for more than half an hour, a gray-haired supporter approaches him and takes his hand. She kisses it softly and thanks him for the “sermon.”

Callahan laughs off the uncomfortable moment in front of a reporter. But there is little doubt that this first-time Congressional candidate has won the admiration of some Democrats, locally and nationally.

“We tried to recruit him back in 2006 and 2008. What he’s been able to accomplish as mayor of the sixth-largest city in Pennsylvania is impressive,” a Democratic aide said. “But he’s also got the political skills, which we’re seeing play out. He’s got just as much cash on hand as Charlie Dent. Maybe two or three Democratic challengers are in that position this year.”

Toeing the Moderate Line

Dent knows he has to be careful in this district, even standing next to the Minority Leader at a private fundraiser packed with Republicans.

People crowd into the patio area adjacent to the doctor’s pool to listen to Boehner, who does most of the talking, repeating the familiar GOP attacks against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Obama.

When asked about illegal immigration, however, Dent interjects, drawing on his experience on the Homeland Security Committee. But he declines to use the hard-line rhetoric embraced by many conservatives in his party.

Instead, he offers a nuanced answer about technology along the border. Some eyes glaze over.

It may not excite the conservative base, but Dent knows, even among the party faithful, that he cannot win if he alienates the middle.

He does not embrace the “birthers” movement that suggests the president was not born in this country. He refuses to call Obama a socialist, preferring instead to say the president favors “a European welfare state.” And he says he has no plans to join the Tea Party Caucus.

“I’m not a member, no,” he said in a separate interview. “The tea party is a local movement. It’s a decentralized movement. It’s not Washington based. I meet with all kinds of constituents, including people that call themselves members of the tea party. Their power and strength is out across the country.”

But they may have some strength in this election as well.

Dent and Callahan will share the ballot with Jake Towne, a tea party-backed candidate who has not been shy in attacking the Republican incumbent from the right.

“During his sorry 20-year political career, Charlie Debt has repeatedly supported unconstitutional legislation that has created raging, out-of-control deficits,” Towne charged in a recent statement.

It’s unclear what effect Towne will have on the race, but Democrats hope he could attract 2 to 3 percent. That could be enough to push Callahan over the top, especially in what will be Dent’s toughest challenge since he first won.

Callahan notes that Dent outspent his last two opponents 12-to-1 and 2-to-1, respectively. That won’t happen this cycle, he promises.

“This is a very different race than Charlie’s ever run,” Callahan says. “I’m the first formidable opponent he’s had. I came into this race with 55 percent name recognition without having spent a cent.”

There are signs that things may turn nasty in the near future.

Although neither candidate is on TV yet (the district includes a piece of the expensive Philadelphia media market), Dent paid for a billboard in the center of town last week that shows his opponent throwing dice: “Trust John Callahan on Taxes? That’s a Real Crapshoot,” it says.

Despite the ominous signs, both men appear to have high favorables at this point, even among their opposing party.

“Charlie Dent is a nice guy,” conceded Mitlyng, the Callahan supporter. “People say, ‘I’m a friend of Charlie Dent.’ The trouble is that that’s not getting the job done.”

And Atul Amin, the host of the Boehner fundraiser, admitted that he voted for Callahan in the previous mayoral election.

“I like Callahan,” he said as Dent chatted with the well-dressed donors near the outdoor bar. “But I like Charlie better.”

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