HAZLETON, Pa. - At 70, Beverly Shandrick has been a Democrat for decades. She likes U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski and says, "He's done a lot for the senior citizens."
But the "immigration problem," she says, might drive her to vote Nov. 4 for Republican Lou Barletta, Hazleton's mayor, who became a national conservative icon by cracking down on the illegal immigrants he said were draining the life from his city in the old coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania.
"They're taking over the town," Shandrick says of immigrants. "There's been a lot of crime since they moved in."
In a year when Democrats expect to consolidate their control of Congress, Kanjorski is one of the few party members ranked among the most vulnerable House incumbents. Barletta leads a new Franklin and Marshall College poll by 5 percentage points in what has become the most closely watched congressional race in Pennsylvania.
Kanjorski's troubles stem, in part, from passions Barletta unleashed two years ago when Hazleton become the first town in America to ban employers from hiring illegal immigrants.
Some voters feel unease over an influx of Latinos - many from New York City - that has transformed some places that hadn't seen many new faces in a generation.
Numerous communities nationally passed ordinances similar to Hazleton's. Barletta, 52, became a repeat guest on network news. He even was interviewed by TV stations from Japan, France, England, Germany and Italy.
Immigration appears to have dropped behind the sagging economy as an immediate voter concern, but it remains a potent force.
"It's absolutely an issue," Barletta said. "I'm not saying it's the top issue. The issue is not just illegal immigration; it's the lack of leadership in Washington. That's what has made this a race. I stood up."
A federal judge in Scranton overturned the Hazleton ordinance, saying only the U.S. government can regulate immigration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia is scheduled to take up the case Oct. 31.
Kanjorski, 71, who is serving his 12th term, agrees with Barletta on major immigration issues. Both oppose "amnesty" that would permit illegal immigrants to gain citizenship.
But Kanjorski said Barletta, who also ran against him in 2002, had "abused the issue" for political gain.
"He's trying to convince people that it's the cause of all their problems," Kanjorski said.
In a Scranton rally Sunday, former President Bill Clinton fanned the issue.
Kanjorski has "a tough race because some people in his district believe that illegal immigration is a bigger cause of their economic problems than President Bush's economic policies," the Scranton Times-Tribune reported Clinton as saying.
Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District, where the battle is being waged, includes the university town of Bloomsburg, the nuclear power plant at Berwick, and a booming part of the Pocono Mountains.
At its core, it remains a region that hasn't gotten over losing its economic base: the anthracite that lies beneath the forested hills around Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and other towns. Hard coal died decades ago when people stopped using it to heat their homes. With it went jobs, never replaced.
Hazleton had 38,000 people in 1940; it has about 25,000 today.
Amilcar Arroyo, publisher of an area Spanish newspaper, said immigrants found they could get a house for what a tiny apartment cost in New York.
"In the beginning, it was a good relationship with Mayor Barletta," Arroyo said, noting that Barletta even had set up an office at City Hall to help new arrivals make the transition.
The relationship soured when longtime residents began to believe the immigrants were committing a disproportionate share of crimes.
In 2006, a Hazleton man was shot to death, and an illegal immigrant who had been arrested eight times before was charged. (The charges were dropped last year.) The city spent half its budget to pay police overtime in the case.
The next month, Hazleton passed its Illegal Immigration Relief Act.
Arroyo, a citizen born in Peru, said many legal immigrants felt unwelcome. He said police frequently searched cars carrying people with "dark skin, broken English." He said he had been told to "go back to your country."
Barletta called it "unfortunate" if legal immigrants felt targeted, but said: "It's not a reason to not discuss an issue that has affected millions of Americans."
Kanjorski would prefer to talk about his support for a new GI Bill of Rights for veterans, his pro-union voting record, and "bringing high-quality jobs" to the district.
In his campaign, he has been on the defensive about obtaining $9 million in federal funding for a now-bankrupt company, Cornerstone Technologies, that members of his family owned.
The race leaped onto the national radar screen last month when Barletta led an earlier Franklin and Marshall poll. Since then, Democrats nationally have gained politically from voter anxiety about the banking crisis. In the poll released Wednesday, Barletta's lead had dropped to 5 points from 9. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
"There has been a game change because of the economy," Kanjorski said, "and that change is affecting my race, also."
But he worries that, as the chairman of a House subcommittee that helped write the Wall Street rescue package, he could be "punished" for supporting what many hardworking, bill-paying voters viewed as a "fat cat" bailout.
He called the race "fluid," but said he was now "probably a little ahead."
Republican say their polls show Barletta continuing to run ahead.