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In Pa., 7 House races to watch

Voters' anxiety about the president and finances has helped make the contests competitive.

Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, a Democrat fighting for his political life in a time of voter discontent, talked jobs, jobs, and jobs as he knocked on doors on a recent evening on Nectar Lane in Falls Township.

At the Brosovich home, he talked about the grants he won to help transform the old U.S. Steel works into a manufacturing complex for wind turbines and solar panels.

At the Kubis house on Nickel Hill Lane, Murphy leaned over the fence as he talked, barbecue smoke making him hungry.

"Republicans are shipping jobs overseas and then bitching because the jobs are gone," he said of free-trade treaties and tax policies. "We've got to start making things in this country again."

Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, the congressman Murphy beat in 2006, held a 48 percent to 41 percent lead in their midterm rematch in a recent survey by the respected pollster Neil Newhouse.

Theirs is one of seven competitive congressional races - four of them in the Philadelphia suburbs - in Pennsylvania, a traditional swing state that had been trending Democratic in the last several election cycles.

As in other parts of the country, many voters in the Bucks County-centered Eighth District have soured on President Obama and are anxious about the economy. Fitzpatrick has been pounding Murphy for his mostly party-line voting record for the stimulus, health-care, and global-warming legislation.

A veteran of the Iraq war with a rising national profile, Murphy would probably not face a serious threat in ordinary times. He led the House effort to repeal the ban on gays openly serving in the military, was his party's spokesman on withdrawal from Iraq, and won a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

At the end of June, when the most recent campaign-finance reports were filed, Murphy had $1.8 million, three times more than Fitzpatrick. But Philadelphia television is expensive, and the National Republican Campaign Committee has not weighed in yet with ad money.

Here is a look at the other key Pennsylvania races:

Sixth District

Democrats have considered Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach an accidental congressman since the gerrymandered district was created in 2001, but he keeps winning.

Although Obama won the district with 58 percent of the vote, Gerlach won reelection with a larger victory margin in 2008 than he had in 2006.

The diverse district comprises Main Line homes in Montgomery County, farms in Chester County, former industrial hubs such as Norristown and Coatesville, and a piece of Berks County that includes Reading.

Closer to the Nov. 2 election, national Democrats may have to make brutal choices, spending money to try to save their incumbents instead of party nominee Manan Trivedi.

But the Iraq war veteran and physician from Reading defeated a primary challenger with four times more campaign cash. His status as a political outsider helps.

"Trivedi will probably campaign against Gerlach as being part of the problem, being part of the gridlock of Washington," said political consultant Larry Ceisler. "If you are a challenger running against a Republican like that, your mantra is 'Throw them all out.' "

Seventh District

The race to succeed Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak, who is running for Senate, is still targeted for attention and cash by both national parties. Polls suggest Republican voters across the nation are more energized this year, but Sestak's position atop the ticket may help in the district, which covers most of Delaware County and parts of Chester and Montgomery Counties.

State Rep. Bryan Lentz, the Democrat, must overcome not only a national frustration with the Democrats running Washington, but also a Republican opponent who is practically a household name in Delaware County. Patrick Meehan, a former district attorney and former U.S. attorney, has no votes to defend, while Lentz, after two terms in the state House, has already had to defend tax increases.

Meehan "is an identifiable persona," said St. Joseph's University political historian Randall Miller. "So he doesn't have to depend upon the Republicans nationally."

And Lentz, Miller said, has "been in Harrisburg, which for some people is worse than being in Washington."

15th District

Three-term Republican Rep. Charlie Dent, whose swing district went for Obama by 15 percentage points two years ago, is one of nine incumbents whom the NRCC rates as vulnerable.

Democrat John Callahan, the mayor of Bethlehem, had about $989,000 on hand at the end of June, to Dent's $1.04 million. The district lies mostly in the Lehigh Valley but includes parts of Montgomery and Berks Counties. The most recent public poll, by Muhlenberg College in April, showed Dent leading, 38 percent to 27 percent. Political analysts say Dent still leads in private campaign polls and note that Democrats could not beat him two years ago with the Obama-inspired turnout surge.

Third District

Democratic Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper was elected two years ago in this northwest Pennsylvania district that trends Republican and was carried, though barely, by 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.

She went on the air first, with an ad in which she declares that "Washington, D.C., is broken" and that "the solutions to the problems we face are found here," in Erie. Dahlkemper emphasized her votes against the "cap-and-trade" bill to limit carbon emissions and the second Wall Street bailout. But she voted for the stimulus and health-care bills.

Mike Kelly, the Republican nominee, is an auto dealer from Butler and a former Notre Dame University football player. Some recent polls show him leading. Dahlkemper has $1 million to Kelly's $103,000, but Republican strategists say he can pay for his own campaign, and the NRCC has its eye on him; if it looks as though he has a shot, the NRCC will pour in money.

10th District

Democratic Rep. Chris Carney, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve whose duties include piloting drone attacks against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, is in his second term. He faces a challenge from Republican Tom Marino, a former U.S. attorney for central Pennsylvania.

The district, in northeast Pennsylvania, was carried by McCain in 2008 with 54 percent of the vote.

The biggest campaign issue has been Marino's serving as a reference for businessman Louis DeNaples' 2006 casino license application at a time his office was investigating DeNaples. When he left the Justice Department, Marino went to work as a $250,000-a-year, in-house counsel for DeNaples businesses.

As of late June, Carney had just under $800,000 to Marino's $11,000. Marino's fund-raising has since picked up, GOP officials said. The Republican did not help his campaign when he was videotaped yelling at protesters on the street, asking them if they had jobs or were on welfare.

But Carney is under fire for some of his votes, including for the health-care overhaul. A national antiabortion group is running radio ads against Carney for that vote, arguing that the new law will not prohibit federal money for abortions. Carney is an abortion opponent.

11th District

Veteran Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski won his 13th term in 2008 by only about 3,000 votes, and the man who challenged him then and in 2006 is back for more: Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta.

Barletta became a hero to some for his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in his city, but Kanjorski has blasted him in TV commercials for Hazleton's fiscal problems.

And for all the voter angst, more than 95 percent of congressional incumbents who seek reelection typically win, said Wilkes University political scientist Thomas Baldino.

"At this point," Baldino said, "it's still Kanjorski's race to lose."