In their first bids for elected office, Kevin Strouse and Shaughnessy Naughton are shooting high: Each wants to be the Democrat to run against Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania's Eighth Congressional District.

But Strouse, 34, a former Army Ranger and CIA analyst, and Naughton, 35, a cancer researcher turned businesswoman, have been hesitant to trade juicy political haymakers. And their platforms are largely similar.

So their primary race hasn't grabbed headlines like the bombastic battle for U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz's seat in Montgomery County, or two highly competitive contests in South Jersey.

Still, national and local Democrats have long desired the seat, which covers Bucks County and a sliver of Montgomery County, where Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans.

The question now is whether any recent developments - such as a television ad from Strouse, or a strong fund-raising quarter for Naughton - will lead to sustained attention for them and help their quest to unseat Fitzpatrick.

"This is clearly among the most coveted seats for Democrats," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Borick called the district "one of the only remaining truly competitive districts in the state," although several national forecasting organizations consider Fitzpatrick the favorite in this year's race.

Fitzpatrick won the 2012 election by 12 points, even with President Obama at the top of the Democratic ticket. And he had $1.5 million in cash on hand at the beginning of last quarter, nearly triple that of his closest potential opponent.

That hasn't deterred Strouse or Naughton.

Throughout their campaigns this spring, the candidates have been eager to draw a contrast between themselves and the 50-year-old former county commissioner seeking his fourth term in Congress.

Strouse grew up in Wallingford, Delaware County, attended Strath Haven High School, and graduated from Columbia University in 2001.

After college - just months before 9/11 - he enlisted in the Army and eventually joined the Rangers, serving three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq.

He was honorably discharged in 2004, and a year later joined the Central Intelligence Agency as an analyst, where he worked for seven years.

His experiences at the CIA and in the military seeded Strouse's interest in policy, he said in an interview last week, because he could see how decisions from lawmakers could have an effect on the ground.

Using the Iraq war as an example, Strouse said he noticed how policies - which he called deeply flawed - impacted the country, turning Baghdad into a city of concrete barricades where people lived in fear.

"That's what got me interested in the policy," he said. "I saw how it was affecting me, as well as other soldiers, as well as people and the government."

Strouse moved to Bucks County with his wife and two young children last year to be closer to his extended family, he said. He now lives in Langhorne.

He moved to the area without a job, but now works part time as a program director at an educational nonprofit, Teach2Serve. Strouse said that he decided to move to Bucks County before choosing to run for office, and that his wife is employed, which has allowed him to concentrate on the race.

He acknowledges one of his mentors is former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy - the last Democrat to defeat Fitzpatrick. Murphy is also a board member at Teach2Serve.

Naughton, who grew up in a large Irish Catholic family in Point Pleasant, Bucks County, graduated at 20 from Bryn Mawr College with a degree in chemistry.

She went on to work in breast cancer research for the pharmaceutical company Wyeth for several years, she said in an interview at her campaign office, but in 2003 left the job to help her family's struggling publishing business, Naughton Design & Publishing.

Naughton made changes to the company, she said, finding new clients and eventually offering digital marketing services in addition to print products.

She thought the career shift would be a temporary diversion, she said with a laugh, but the experience has fueled her belief that Congress is out of touch with small-business owners.

"It's just very obvious that they don't get it," she said, citing the disconnect as a factor motivating her run. One thing she'd support at the federal level to spur businesses would be lowering corporate tax rates, she said.

Strouse and Naughton have similar stances on hot-button issues: Both support the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans are likely to make an election issue, and both support legalizing same-sex marriage.

And they have run unfailingly positive campaigns. Asked what differentiated them from their Democratic opponent, Strouse and Naughton emphasized their experiences and biographies rather than taking potshots at each other.

As for legislation they'd sponsor, Strouse - who has the backing of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - said he was interested in improving access to pre-kindergarten programs and investing in infrastructure.

Naughton, who is supported by the Democratic advocacy group Emily's List, described a program to spur research in clean energy, and she wants to permanently ban fracking in the Delaware River region.

The first task, however, is to win the nomination on May 20.

Both candidates like their chances.

Strouse had more cash on hand as of mid-April, about $563,000.

But Naughton, who had $208,000, raised nearly $125,000 in the first few months of the year, buoyed in part by small donations from dozens of academics at universities across the country - Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, and more.

Naughton says that shows her story connects with people, and that a scientist and entrepreneur would be the right choice for Eighth District voters.

"I think coming from a small-business background, that's something that really resonates with folks in Bucks and Montgomery Counties," Naughton said.

Strouse, too, thinks his credentials set him apart.

"Here's what I'd tell you: Look at the body of work and the experience I have," he said. "I think that really makes me stand out."

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