A recurring 2006 election-year theme is playing itself out in the race for who will represent Bucks County in Congress. The Democratic challenger tries to link his opponent to an unpopular president and his war, as well as scandals stemming from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; the Republican works to emphasize his credentials as an independent moderate who's in step with middle-class voters.
The performers in this little play are first-term incumbent Michael Fitzpatrick (R-District 8) and Patrick Murphy, who served in Iraq as a paratrooper.
The Rothenberg political report, a nonpartisan newsletter that rates competitive races across the country, said that the district was leaning Republican, as opposed to the heated races for the 6th and 7th districts, which it listed as toss-ups.
But the district went with the Democratic presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, leading some Democrats to think that voters may be ready to send one of their own to Washington.
Murphy asserted that his campaign is part of a national party effort to take back the House and set a new course in Iraq, as well as here at home.
"I think it's clear to most people that change is on the way," said Murphy.
Fitzpatrick countered the assertion that he acts in step with congressional Republicans and the White House.
"I'm an independent and always have been," he said. "I represent my district. Neither party nor partisan philosophy is put in front of the interests of my district."
A centerpiece of Murphy's campaign is his Iraq plan, which calls for National Guard troops and reservists to be recalled within six months. "We need to refocus the war on terrorism, and go after Osama bin Laden."
Fitzpatrick said the main difference between himself and his opponent vis-à-vis Iraq is over setting withdrawal timetables, which he feels will only embolden Sunni and Shi'ite extremists.
"Bin Laden has called for the defeat of America in Iraq," stated Fitzpatrick. "To precipitously and quickly withdraw all troops is dangerous, and would significantly compromise the democracy in Iraq and send the wrong message to the terrorists who wish to defeat us there."
Fitzpatrick pointed out that in his first debate with his opponent — which took place on a live-radio call-in show in August — that Murphy criticized him for asserting that Israel has the right to conduct a pre-emptive strike against Iran.
"Israel must retain the right of self-defense, including a pre-emptive strike against Iran, if the situation is so serious and requires it," said Fitzpatrick.
Murphy countered that news reports magnified the difference between the two positions. He said that both candidates — and both parties — wholeheartedly support Israel and its right to respond to aggression.
But the challenger does argue that the United States should be conducting a more proactive diplomatic effort on the Iranian front, and blasted the administration for not holding direct talks with Tehran.
Murphy has projected himself as a reformer who would work to make elected officials' dealings with lobbyists more transparent — and try to prevent the kind of scandals that brought down former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
As such, he has backed the proposal to eliminate lobbyist-paid trips for legislators.
However, some in the pro-Israel community fear that such a rule would eliminate junkets to Israel, used to provide Senate and House members with a certain context to the Middle East.
Murphy said that he was not against those trips, but did not clarify which ones would be out.
Fitzpatrick also defended congressional trips to Israel, saying that ethics reform is needed. He, too, offered few specifics.