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After Two Losses, Pennsylvania’s Patrick Murphy Waits in the Wings

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Former Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) still works the Democratic National Convention like he’s a candidate.

He glad-hands with semi-familiar faces. He poses for photos with nervous admirers. He stops Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in the hallway to alert him of a known Republican supporter in Florida, his mother-in-law.

“Everyone keeps asking me, ‘What are you running for?’” Murphy said minutes before he stepped onto the dais for a lunchtime panel on defense cuts. “I say, ‘Nothing.’”

But it’s an appropriate question — and one that’s on the minds of many Pennsylvania Democrats. Which office will the one-time rising star seek next?

In 2006, Murphy floated atop the crème of freshman Democratic victors. He upset an incumbent in a swing district to become the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress. During the following four years, he wrote a book, addressed the 2008 Democratic National Convention, landed a coveted Appropriations Committee seat and authored the landmark repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the House.

And then Murphy lost. Twice. In fewer than two years.

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R), his former foe, halted Murphy’s ascent when he defeated him in 2010. In April, Murphy blew the primary for state attorney general against a first-time candidate.

“I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life,” Murphy said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s private and hopefully public service.”

Murphy, 38, isn’t done with politics yet. He campaigns and fundraises for candidates across the country. He talks about House races thousands of miles away from his Bucks County home. And at this convention, the Pennsylvania delegate served as vice chairman of his party’s platform committee.

He insists he’s not running again “anytime soon,” but who could blame him for wanting to get back in the game? The game was good to him.

Four years ago, Murphy occupied a top speaking slot at the Democratic convention, walking on stage with 25 fellow veterans to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger.” Indeed, Murphy was the center of it all: the Democratic wave, frustration over the Iraq War, the future Obama administration. Murphy backed the president early in his 2008 primary, making him one of his first Congressional supporters outside Illinois.

It only got better for Murphy during his second term — until he got swept out in the GOP wave of 2010. Ben Affleck modeled much of his character in the blockbuster “State of Play” after his friend Murphy. The Pennsylvania delegation lobbied for Murphy to pick up the late Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) seat on Appropriations after his death. He played point guard for House efforts to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which passed in the lame-duck session of last Congress.

His background in the 82nd Airborne Division, strong fundraising ability and Irish blue eyes formed a strong political profile for a future statewide officeholder. When the former JAG officer ran for state attorney general earlier this year, every House Democrat from Pennsylvania backed him over Lackawanna County prosecutor Kathleen Kane.

Kane upset Murphy, thanks to her own deep pockets and an enthusiastic endorsement from President Bill Clinton. Obama senior adviser David Axelrod endorsed Murphy, but the president didn’t do any events for one of the president’s earliest Congressional supporters.

“He has other things to do,” Murphy said. “And I respect that.”

More notably, Murphy’s ambition played into Kane’s campaign, which routinely reminded voters they should elect a “prosecutor, not a politician.” Now, as a result of his 7-point primary loss, Murphy must select his next step carefully.

“He will have to be very strategic in picking his next run,” said Larry Ceisler, a Democratic consultant in Pennsylvania. “But the goodwill is there for him to have the requisite support. He is still very visible here and obviously wants to stay involved. He is still one of the key components of the future of the Democratic Party.”

Interviews with top Pennsylvania Democrats yielded few obvious paths for Murphy, who declined to talk specifics about his future. Democrats cautioned that Keystone State voters are not forgiving following multiple losses. Still, they suggested various routes for Murphy to return to politics:

• He could run for local office, such as county commissioner or the state Legislature. There’s precedent for this: After former Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D) lost his 2004 Senate bid, he became Montgomery County commissioner. But Democrats said Murphy wouldn’t settle for managing municipalities or hand-wringing in Harrisburg given his national persona.

• Murphy could run for his former House seat in a couple of years. He has ardently campaigned and raised money for the Democratic nominee against Fitzpatrick, attorney Kathy Boockvar. But Murphy would be the best possible future candidate for the seat if she is not successful in November. Still, in an interview, Murphy emphasized he wants to stay in Pennsylvania now to raise his two children.

• Murphy could lay low in the private sector for a few years until there’s an opening for statewide office again, perhaps for attorney general or lieutenant governor. Any kind of appointment to the Obama administration would help him in the meantime. This seems his most likely path to return to office.

“Patrick has to wait for the right opportunity,” said a Democratic operative who knows Murphy. “Not the next opportunity, but the right one. The one that shows his passion. The one that he can own. I don’t know what that opportunity is, but no matter what, waiting, and maintaining a political presence while maintaining his donor list is critical.”

And this week, Murphy appears to be doing exactly that.

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