- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski is bucking the national trend this year - not exactly welcome news for his campaign.

A 12-term Democratic incumbent in a Democratic district in a Democratic year, the 71-year-old Mr. Kanjorski should be coasting to victory in Pennsylvania’s 11th District, the historic heart of the state’s coal country. But tightening polls, national handicappers and wads of money pouring in from both the Republican and Democratic national parties all suggest that Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, the Republican challenger, has made a real race of it.

“This is going to be a very heavily contested race, on both sides,” said Ken Spain, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). “We see a long a protracted battle, which has to be bad news for an incumbent like Kanjorski.”

Mr. Barletta, who earned national attention by enacting a tough ordinance against illegal immigrants as mayor, said in an interview that the race is close in part because “I am the ‘change candidate’ in this contest.”

Mr. Kanjorski “has been in Washington 24 years. He can hardly argue now that he is part of the solution to fixing what’s wrong there,” Mr. Barletta said.

In a congressional electoral landscape in which the Republicans mostly are playing defense, the Kanjorski-Barletta race presents a rare Republican target of opportunity.

Mr. Barletta lost to Mr. Kanjorski in 2002, but held the Democrat to 56 percent - the lowest victory margin in his 12 races. Mr. Kanjorski won his 2006 race over a poorly funded Republican opponent by 44 percentage points, and was not seen as vulnerable in the early handicapping of the 2008 race.

But James Pindell, managing editor of Politicker.com, earlier this month rated the election a tossup. The Cook Political Report last month moved the race from “leans Democratic” to a tie, noting that the closeness of the race is “cutting against the national grain in a few ways.”

Ed Mitchell, campaign spokesman for Mr. Kanjorski, dismissed suggestions the incumbent is in trouble. He maintained that the political buzz surrounding the race is based on a single internal poll commissioned by the Barletta campaign giving the Republican a four-point lead, 45 percent to 41 percent.

“We don’t share our own polls, but I can tell you we are very pleased where we are at right now,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We still have a cash advantage, we’re strong on television advertising, and we’ve got an opponent who’s at odds with the district on such issues as the minimum wage, energy prices, the war in Iraq and his support for President Bush.”

He argued that television ads by Mr. Barletta and the NRCC attacking Mr. Kanjorski running in the district are proof the race isn’t as close as Republicans say.

“If they were in such good shape, why are they being so negative?” he said. “They should be riding their horse home.”

Carrie James, northeast regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the party “has the resources to be extremely aggressive in a number of districts,” including the Pennsylvania race.

But Mr. Kanjorski appears vulnerable on a front where incumbents typically shine - bringing home the bacon.

A Barletta ad hammers Mr. Kanjorski for a much-criticized $10 million earmark that went to a high-tech company owned in part by his relatives, a company that eventually went bankrupt.

An office development backed by Mr. Kanjorski as a centerpiece for development in his hometown of Nanticoke has also proven an embarrassing white elephant.

“The office complex, which Democrats now probably wish was never named the ‘Kanjorski Center,’ has been vacant since 2005,” according to an analysis by Cook Political Report congressional analyst David Wasserman.

Analysts say the unwillingness of the Kanjorski campaign to release its polls and the interest shown by the national Democratic Party in the race both point to a very close contest in November.

Mr. Kanjorski retains a sizable funding advantage over his rival, but Republicans counter that Mr. Barletta already is well known in the district from his 2002 House race and from the national profile he earned from his illegal immigration stands. With Scranton and Wilkes-Barre the two major cities in the district, ad budgets are not nearly as hefty as in more expensive media markets.

“He can out-spend me, because of his ties to the Washington special interests,” Mr. Barletta said. “But I’m getting money from all 50 states and have enough support in the district to be heard. He’s the 24-year incumbent. He shouldn’t be having to get all this outside help just to preserve his job.”

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