The two big dogs in Montgomery County politics stood toe to toe in the lobby of radio station WNPV last week, their voices rising as they pointed fingers at each other.

Democrat Joe Hoeffel and Republican Bruce Castor were picking up where they had just left off during a live radio debate for candidates for the Board of Commissioners.

"What makes you Bruce Almighty?" said Hoeffel, a former congressman.

"Your whole campaign is a lie," retorted Castor, the district attorney.

Hoeffel and Castor, two popular pols who have run for statewide office before and may do so again, are casting big shadows on the race for control of the Montgomery County Courthouse, a contest that will assess the former Republican stronghold's drift toward the Democrats.

"You have sort of Goliath vs. Goliath," said Sam Katz, the GOP nominee for mayor of Philadelphia in 1999 and 2003.

Their running mates - incumbent Republican Commissioner Jim Matthews and incumbent Democratic Commissioner Ruth S. Damsker - have been mostly overshadowed despite their own long political careers.

Strategists in both parties agree that Castor and Hoeffel probably will take two out of the three commissioner seats at stake, with Damsker and Matthews, who was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor last year, in a close contest for the third spot that will determine party control.

Whichever side wins, talk in the courthouse is that neither of the superstars, Hoeffel or Castor, would want to hang around long as a powerless minority commissioner. Indeed, Hoeffel was in that position before he was elected to Congress in 1998.

It has turned into an expensive contest. Democrats expect they will have raised and spent about $1.1 million by Nov. 6, nearly equal to the GOP campaign budget and quadruple what Democrats were able to muster four years ago. They are counting on the national political mood - which has seen the Republican brand take a beating - as well as recent Democratic gains in the county, particularly in eastern municipalities.

"People are still ticked off at Washington, and that's the unanswerable part right now," Matthews said. "If Bill Clinton was president, we'd win by 5 points."

Since 1992, Montgomery has supported the Democrat in presidential elections by ever-increasing margins. The county also went for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Gov. Rendell.

If the Democrats win the two commissioner seats, they would control the government of the state's third-largest county for the first time in 140 years.

A win would be as momentous as the 1950 mayor's election in Philadelphia, when the Democrats began their current reign in the city. "It's an earthquake," said the county Democratic chairman, Marcel Groen.

The Republicans are counting on an organization able to mobilize its core voters, a crucial skill in what is likely to be a low-turnout election. They also believe they will be helped, in part, by the lackluster campaign for Philadelphia mayor - there has been no blizzard of ads on regional TV to remind voters that there is an election on.

"We do well in low-turnout elections," county GOP chairman Ken Davis said. "Our regulars don't get caught up in the national trends."

As Matthews and Castor have pointed out, there seem to be no glaring issues with the county government. The county tax rate is stable, and the commissioners have preserved open space and built new training centers for police and fire personnel, among other things.

So the fight has largely been over personalities and allegations of corruption.

Hoeffel and Damsker argue that the county administration is rife with cronyism and pay-to-play politics. Among examples they cite: a $7,500-a-month lobbying contract for GOP chairman Davis' firm and a contract award to a forensic laboratory headed by a GOP donor.

In recent days, discussion has centered on two people not on the ballot: former Jury Commissioner Joanne Cisco Olszewski, a Democrat who was chairwoman of the Damsker-Hoeffel campaign, and GOP power broker Bob Asher.

Olszewski resigned because she was charged with a crime after an illegal video poker machine was found in her bar during a countywide raid conducted Oct. 2 by Castor's office.

The Democrats charge that the prosecution of Olszewski, a relatively small fish in a bigger investigation, was politically motivated. Castor says everything was by the book. That case sparked the radio-station argument between Hoeffel and Castor.

It also has served to undercut the Democrats' ethics critique.

Hoeffel has attacked Matthews for accepting financial support from Asher, a member of the Republican National Committee who was convicted in a 1986 bribery related case.

The issue exploits a long-standing rift in the county GOP, divided into pro-Asher and anti-Asher factions. Castor, a member of the latter group, refuses to take Asher money and has publicly criticized his running mate for doing so.

But Asher - a philanthropist and major financial backer of former Gov. Tom Ridge and President Bush - is beloved by both sides of the state's political establishment, and Hoeffel's tactic has been controversial.

Prominent Philadelphia Democrat David L. Cohen, the man known as Rendell's Karl Rove, sent a blistering e-mail to Hoeffel, calling the attacks "appalling."

Asher, Cohen wrote, "has served his time and done so much good for so many people, it's time for all rational and thinking people to allow the past to be the past."

Cohen said in an interview that he supports Hoeffel and Damsker. And there is no evidence that attacks on Asher, which have been levied often, work with voters. The last to try: Castor in 2004, when he ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general.

Meanwhile, both Castor and Hoeffel - who was the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2004 and flirted with running for lieutenant governor last year - say their sights are set only on the courthouse at Swede and Airy Streets in Norristown. But plans often change in politics.

Commissioners Race: Montgomery County


Bruce Castor: The Montgomery County D.A., 46, is completing his second term as chief prosecutor. He is telegenic and a frequent presence in the media. Republicans are counting on his popularity to help retain the courthouse. Mentioned as a possible candidate for higher office, including the governorship in 2010, he ran for state attorney general in 2004.

Jim Matthews: Seeking his third consecutive term as a commissioner, Matthews, 58, is a fiscal conservative who has backed open-space preservation and more spending on law enforcement. A former Navy lieutenant, he was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor last year, running with former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann.


Joe Hoeffel: A former member of the U.S. House, 57, he is looking to return to the Board of Commissioners on which he served from 1991 to1997. Hoeffel won election to the House in 1998 after three failed congressional campaigns. He relinquished the seat in 2004 to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Arlen Specter and lost. Hoeffel considered running for lieutenant governor until Gov. Rendell dissuaded him.

Ruth S. Damsker: A two-term commissioner and a former township official, Damsker, 62, has tangled with the majority Republicans over appointments and contracting decisions. She has specialized in human services as a commissioner and argues for a more open government.