- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

HALFMOON, N.Y. | With polls tight, a Republican state legislator and a Democratic venture capitalist battle daily over the economic stimulus package in a congressional race that’s seen as a referendum on President Obama’s policies and a test of Republican strength.

“What we should have done was go back to the drawing board, get a stimulus package that truly creates jobs, invests in infrastructure and the economy,” said Jim Tedisco, a Republican echoing Washington party leaders who almost unanimously opposed the $787 billion package.

Scott Murphy, conversely, stands with Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats who control Congress. “The right choice was for the federal government to help us through this crisis with the stimulus. This is the shock absorber that could start to turn the economy around,” he said.

Playing out in a sprawling upstate New York district, the first special election of Mr. Obama’s presidency is a priority for both parties. Money is flowing to the candidates. Party heavyweights are campaigning. Outside groups are involved.

It’s not that the race will decide U.S. House power; Democrats have a comfortable majority. It’s not that the district is a bellwether; Republicans outnumber Democrats. It’s not that the outcome will gauge the public’s exact sentiment; turnout is always very low in special elections.

But Democrats and Republicans plan to use the results anyway as a measure of the popularity of Mr. Obama’s economic efforts. The outcome also will serve as a barometer for the beleaguered Republican Party and its new national chairman, Michael S. Steele.

Republicans hope to prove they can win after national defeats in 2006 and 2008. Mr. Steele, after a rough start in his new job, wants to quiet critics who doubt he can engineer victories. He has sent party workers to the district, campaigned for Mr. Tedisco and poured in $200,000. The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $343,000, including $329,000 for advertising that opposes Mr. Murphy.

With foreclosures, unemployment and fears running high, voters clearly are divided over the stimulus.

“I’m not sure it was the right move. Who’s going to pay for it in the long run?” wondered Susan Inglee, 49, a bus driver from Queensbury.

Countered Bill Pomeroy, 81, a retiree from Clifton Park, who has watched his investments evaporate: “It was the right thing to do, but it’s been done much too quickly.”

Right or wrong, “I hope it helps,” said Jessica Painter, 31, of Cohoes, who lost her job last fall at a title insurance company.

Traditionally conservative, New York’s 20th Congressional District cuts across the Hudson Valley, the Catskills and the Adirondacks. It is heavily white, rural and middle class, and had been in Republican hands for decades; George W. Bush comfortably won it twice.

Then moderate Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand upset scandal-tainted U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, New York Republican, in 2006 as part of a nationwide wave that swept Republicans from power in the U.S. House.

Since then, the district has tilted slightly more Democratic. Mrs. Gillibrand won re-election in 2008, and Mr. Obama narrowly carried the district. Still, Republicans have a voter registration edge of 70,000.

The seat became vacant when Gov. David A. Paterson appointed Mrs. Gillibrand to serve the remainder of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s U.S. Senate term.

Republicans turned to Mr. Tedisco, the top Republican in the Assembly who has been in Albany for more than 25 years. At 58, Mr. Tedisco is a picture of state-capital politics, with gray-streaked hair, dark business suits and tasseled loafers.

A former educator raised in the area, Mr. Tedisco has name recognition on his side. But he has taken heat because he lives just outside the district. He emphasizes roots and experience.

Democrats tapped the 39-year-old Murphy, a Missouri native and Harvard graduate who moved his family from New York City to the district three years ago to be closer to his in-laws. Mr. Murphy was an aide to two Democratic governors and founded Internet businesses. Now a managing director for Advantage Capital Partners, he calls himself a fiscal conservative. He claims job-creation skills and casts himself as a fresh-faced leader like Mr. Obama.

Republicans have criticized Mr. Murphy for involvement in an Indian version of eBay, tax warrants on a former company and lobbying in Missouri.

But the stimulus measure has dwarfed those issues.

The Democrat-led Congress was debating the bill as the race began in February, when Mr. Tedisco led in polls by double digits and was favored.

As the legislation went to Mr. Obama’s desk, Mr. Murphy said he would have voted for it. But Mr. Tedisco repeatedly refused to take a hard position.

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