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Now it's Murphy facing challenge

The U.S. House freshman, an Iraq vet, is a GOP target. Opponent Tom Manion lost a son in the war last year.

In 2006, Patrick Murphy was the wet-eared political greenhorn running earnestly for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While many respected the young lawyer's military service in Iraq, few thought Murphy could oust a well-known freshman Republican whose party long had dominated Pennsylvania's Eighth Congressional District.

Two years after Murphy's paper-thin upset of Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, the tables have turned.

Murphy, 34, now finds himself the favored freshman incumbent under attack by a political novice also linked, indelibly, to the Iraq war.

Tom Manion, 54, a Marine-turned-pharmaceutical-executive, was sadly dragged into the limelight last year when his son, Marine First Lt. Travis Manion, was killed in action in Iraq. Announcing his candidacy in January, Manion said his son had "given me a wake-up call that my service to this country is not over."

His challenge to Murphy has the makings of a fascinating race in Bucks County, a district that could be a bellwether for moderate swing districts around the country.

"I think it's going to be a tough election," Murphy said in a telephone interview, acknowledging that Republican strategists had targeted his seat. "But I will not be outworked, [and] I have a record that I am very proud of."

Manion already has raised eyebrows with his fund-raising prowess, raking in more than $400,000 in the first quarter of 2008. He also has assembled a team of political operatives who have handled pivotal races elsewhere.

"I have an old saying that money talks, and early money shouts," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Harrisburg. The GOP's hopes of a Manion win "are one reason you're seeing the A-team involved with him."

Still, Manion - a Johnson & Johnson executive who recently retired as a Marine Reserve colonel - casts himself as an outsider fed up with what he sees as partisan gridlock in Washington.

"People really feel that Washington is broken," he said in an interview at his Doylestown home. "People see that I'm not a politician, [but] if we want to make a difference we have to step out and be a part of it."

Both candidates say the economy is apt to be in the forefront of voters' minds, yet no issue divides them more starkly than Iraq.

Murphy's 2003 tour in Baghdad left him disillusioned and angry with the Bush administration's tactics there. He has emerged as a prominent congressional advocate for a scheduled withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda.

"Al-Qaeda has been able to reconstitute themselves so that they're just as strong today as they were on 9/11," Murphy said, "because we're still bogged down refereeing a civil war in Iraq at a cost of $3 trillion to the American taxpayer."

Manion's son had supported the troop surge when a sniper killed him near Fallujah in April 2007. Manion has acknowledged that mistakes have been made in conducting the war, but he opposes withdrawing before Iraq is stable enough to be self-governed. He said military leaders should be trusted to determine the timing and level of troop withdrawals.

"You can't let your enemy know what your plan is," he said. "There are enormous consequences if we leave without stabilizing the area."

The troop surge is accomplishing that, Manion said. "Now we need to push on the diplomatic front to make sure the Iraqi government pulls it together and begins to govern themselves. We need to work with them and make sure they start covering some of the costs of what is happening over there."

In interviews, Manion makes little mention of President Bush, but says he looks forward to running with John McCain "because he is a big supporter of the surge."

Manion's political quest is considered an uphill march on several counts.

Foremost is Murphy's incumbency. The name recognition, financial clout, and other political resources of office-holders have made Capitol Hill one of America's most stable workplaces. More than 90 percent of incumbent candidates are reelected.

Despite Manion's fund-raising, for instance, Murphy's campaign had about four times as much money on hand.

Voter registration in the Eighth District continues to shift toward Democrats. This spring, the number of registered Democrats surpassed registered Republicans in Bucks County for the first time in 30 years.

The district also includes Democrat-dominated slivers of Northeast Philadelphia and the Montgomery County townships of Abington, Upper Dublin and Upper Moreland.

There are about 8,000 more Democrats than Republicans among the district's nearly 462,000 voters. About 14 percent of the voters are registered with neither party.

By comparison, Republicans held a 28,000-voter advantage in Bucks County in 2006.

Republicans already have encountered rough sledding this year in some traditional strongholds. Three House special elections in Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana went to Democrats - all in districts that Bush carried in 2004 by double-digit margins.

"If you want to unseat an incumbent congressman, even a freshman, you've got to have a couple of things happen," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "You have to have a set of issues that work, or you need something really unsavory about your opponent. I don't see either here."

When Franklin and Marshall polled voters before the 2006 election, those in Southeastern Pennsylvania were more strongly against the war than those in other areas of the state, Madonna said.

"Fitzpatrick would still be in his seat if it weren't for the war," Madonna said. "But I think it's more about the economy now, and that helps Democrats more than Republicans."

Manion's supporters note that even in a horrible political year - and with Gov. Rendell at the top of the 2006 ballot - Murphy won by only 1,518 votes, fewer than 1 percent.

And in a county where Sen. Barack Obama - with Murphy his most prominent surrogate - lost miserably to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential primary, the GOP hopes to make a play for independents and blue-collar Democrats.

"The Democrats in Bucks County are not Obama Democrats. They're Clinton-Casey-Rendell Democrats," Gerow said.

Manion's story will resonate with these voters, Gerow said. "He has a good business background. He understands the economy and what needs to be done to get it moving again. He's a nontraditional candidate, and that is a plus."

Democratic political consultant Larry Ceisler agreed that McCain could do well in Bucks County, boosting Manion's prospects. "But I'd still rather say I'm with the party that supported Obama than to say I'm with the party of George Bush."

Whether Murphy hangs on or history repeats with a Manion upset, the campaign won't be tame.

Said Ken Spain, a national Republican spokesman: "It's a sleeper race that could really catch fire at the end."