The heated contest for an open congressional seat in Delaware County could turn on an ethical controversy involving the Democratic nominee, who condoned helping a third-party candidate regarded as a spoiler.

Two-term Democratic state Rep. Bryan Lentz says he sees no harm in his volunteers' gathering thousands of petition signatures for a third-party challenger, Jim Schneller, who is far from being congressional material.

Lentz's dismissive explanation - "politics is politics" - for helping to get Schneller on the ballot is a jarring admission and character flaw for a former Philadelphia prosecutor.

If the matchup comes down to credibility and integrity, though, voters have an attractive alternative: Former U.S. Attorney PATRICK MEEHAN, who earns The Inquirer's endorsement.

The straitlaced Meehan, 55, was a solid district attorney in Delaware County. But it was his anticorruption probes as federal prosecutor for eight years - including nearly two dozen pay-to-play cases in Philadelphia, and developing the winning case against former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo - that serve as his most important achievement.

Meehan may be to the right of Lentz in this campaign, but he has a record as a moderate Republican. Voters should give him the chance to follow those sound instincts in Washington.

In the Sixth District, the incumbent Republican Rep. JIM GERLACH gets The Inquirer's endorsement.

The four-term congressman learned that a standout state Senate career - with a progressive record on conservation issues, in particular - doesn't assure Washington success. With his politically divided district, including Chester, Montgomery, Berks, and Lehigh Counties, Gerlach, 55, has been reluctant to make waves.

His constituents can be confident that Gerlach is qualified to lead - certainly, if his party wins the House. Gerlach could bring a moderate's voice to discussions on health care, tax policy, military affairs, and growing the economy.

Democratic challenger Manan Trivedi, a 36-year-old doctor and Iraq war veteran, is a strong candidate, but can't match Gerlach.

In the 13th District in Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County, The Inquirer endorses Democratic Rep. ALLYSON Y. SCHWARTZ, 62. The incumbent has earned a fourth term.

Schwartz pioneered a children's health-insurance program while serving in the Pennsylvania Senate, and has continued to show leadership in Congress on health issues. She also has been instrumental in promoting the region's important life-sciences economy, recently pushing through Congress within the reform law a $1 billion tax credit for biotech firms.

Her opponent, Abington businessman Carson Dee Adcock, hasn't held elective office and isn't ready for this position.