Democrats lead early

Anti-war sentiment propels Iraq veteran Murphy, two others trying to take House seats from GOP incumbents in Philadelphia suburbs


The Nation Votes 2006

November 08, 2006|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun reporter

LEVITTOWN, Pa. -- His boyish, wide-eyed looks reminded some voters of "the Beaver," and his Republican opponent's ads called him "as green as they get," but Patrick Murphy, a political novice and a veteran of the Iraq war, rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to an early lead last night in Pennsylvania's 8th District congressional race.

Murphy, 33, was one of three Democrats in Philadelphia's suburbs - one of five in Pennsylvania - trying to wrest House seats from Republican incumbents and help turn control of the House of Representatives over to the Democrats.

"The Irishman in the sky is shining down on us," Murphy said yesterday.

Also leading in early returns were Joe Sestak and Lois Murphy, both Democrats opposed to the war who were challenging incumbent House members in Pennsylvania's 6th and 7th districts, in suburban Philadelphia.

While behind in most polls, Murphy had been steadily closing on opponent Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a one-term Republican congressman who, while initially backing President Bush's Iraq policy, had distanced himself from the White House in recent months. Early returns reinforced what polls showed - that the war, while not the sole issue in voters' minds, was the biggest - enough to help a candidate overcome a lack of political experience and home-court advantage.

"Fitzpatrick had the roots and the ties in the community," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. "And he was portraying Murphy as an interloper and carpetbagger who moved here to run." (Murphy grew up in northeast Philadelphia, just outside the 8th District.)

Fitzpatrick was more experienced, having served as a county commissioner for 10 years before winning his House seat. He was strong on environmental issues and "as much as any Republican running in the suburbs, he has tried to make the argument that he disagrees with the president on the war in Iraq," Madonna said.

Murphy, while not a one-issue candidate, came close to that, Madonna said. "Murphy started out rough and raw and green, and he matured into a much better candidate. If not for war, he wouldn't have had an issue. ... Murphy tried to nationalize this election, and Fitzpatrick tried to do everything but," Madonna said.

Fitzpatrick, 43, who frequently referred to his ranking as "the second most independent Republican" in Congress, had stepped back from Bush policy in Iraq.

"My opponent wants to set a strict deadline," Fitzpatrick said after voting at a Levittown elementary school yesterday, blocks from the home in which he grew up. "That is a misdirected strategy that will result in chaos. I don't think we should just `stay the course,' but I prefer to withdraw from Iraq having won."

Meanwhile, outside the former, now-vacant Neil Armstrong Middle School in Bensalem, Murphy shook hands with arriving voters, most of whom he addressed as sir or ma'am. "How are you? I'm Patrick Murphy. I'm a Democrat and Iraq war veteran running for Congress. ... I'd really appreciate your vote. ... I'll make you proud."

Murphy called for withdrawing from Iraq in stages and bringing the troops home by the end of 2007 - the cornerstone of a campaign that also favored abortion rights and federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The son of a Philadelphia police officer, Murphy served as a captain in the Army's 82nd Airborne in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.

The race between two lawyers - both Catholic, both of Irish descent - had nasty moments, including during a Fitzpatrick news conference in which four veterans voiced opposition to Murphy's plan for withdrawal. One questioned how much combat Murphy was involved in. Later, Fitzpatrick, in a television ad, questioned Murphy's contention that he had prosecuted hardened criminals as an Army attorney.

"Mike," Murphy replied at a debate, "you are a liar and a coward."

Fitzpatrick's ads were more negative, including one that replayed video of Murphy stammering on the television show Hardball under questioning by Chris Matthews about whether he had initially supported the war.

Murphy's ads repeatedly linked Fitzpatrick with Bush and the war, such as one depicting cows and saying the Republican merely "follows the herd."

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