Delaware County Republicans are days away from selecting a candidate to run against U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, and Michael Chitwood Sr. is on the short list.

Chitwood, the media-savvy Upper Darby police chief with off-the-chart name recognition, is among a small pool of Republican candidates being considered, county GOP Chairman Tom Judge Sr. said yesterday.

Also on the list are John McMeekin II, a Philadelphia attorney and Radnor school board member, and Stephen Elliott, a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. State Department.

Sestak, a former vice admiral who served as a defense adviser to President Bill Clinton, defeated 10-term U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon last year amid reports that the FBI was investigating Weldon's daughter and campaign adviser. That investigation is ongoing.

Republicans plan to target Sestak's seat as part of their strategy to regain control of the House in 2008.

"Hopefully, it will not be long before the voters of his district relieve him of his duties," said Ken Spain, a spokesman at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Sestak is a Democratic freshman in a Republican district, but he is considered to be less vulnerable than other congressmen in that category. The Philadelphia suburbs are slowly trending Democratic, and Sestak had more than $1 million cash on hand at the close of the last fundraising quarter.

The Republicans "can't let too many freshman Democrats slide by without a challenge," said Nathan Gonzales, of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, "but they need a candidate, and they are also going to need some more momentum to win a seat like the 7th District, which is trending against them."

They may have their candidate in Chitwood, a South Philly native and former city detective who came to Upper Darby two years ago. His shoot-from-the-hip style and tough stance on crime have made him a media darling in Delaware County.

Chitwood confirmed yesterday that he has been asked by Upper Darby Republican leader John McNichol to consider running for Congress.

"That's a big jump, and I said I'd certainly be willing to explore it, and that's what I'm doing," he said.

Chitwood turned down an opportunity early last year to enter the gubernatorial race in Maine, where he had served as a police chief. At the time, he expressed concern about being able to raise the $2 million needed for that race - and a distaste for fundraising in general.

Last year's Weldon-Sestak matchup was among the most expensive House races in the country, due in part to the high price of TV ads in the Philadelphia media market. Chitwood would likely have to raise a seven-figure war chest to be a viable candidate.

McMeekin said he is "very serious" about a congressional bid, but would back anyone the GOP selected. Elliott could not be reached for comment.

In Washington, Sestak has become one of the Democrats' specialists on Iraq policy, calling for a date certain for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Yesterday, Sestak ticked off a long list of accomplishments over the past nine months, from fighting the Federal Aviation Administration's unpopular airspace redesign to "de-bundling" large government contracts so they are awarded to small businesses.

"You want to know the one thing I'm most proud of? My constituency service," he said.

But Sestak is also perceived by some colleagues as a hothead who operates as if he were still in the Navy.

"He's not known as an easy person to work for or with," said a senior Democratic staffer from the Pennsylvania delegation.

The Hill newspaper reported this month that 13 Sestak staffers have quit this year, but Sestak said yesterday that number includes temporary workers and those who were offered "significantly higher" salaries than what he could pay.

"I don't deny that we work hard, and I ask a lot of my people," Sestak said. "It's because the voters wanted to have some change, and there's nothing more challenging than change." *