- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The parade of high-profile Republicans traveling to Pennsylvania's 17th District shows just how determined the party is to hold the seat of Rep. George W. Gekas, who faces fellow incumbent Rep. Tim Holden on Nov. 5.

Incumbent-incumbent matchups are always among the most-watched races, partially because they are a rarity in congressional politics and result only from once-a-decade redistricting. This year, there are four such contests, including battles in Mississippi, Illinois and Connecticut.

The races are a priority for both parties this year because they involve sitting members in the race to control the House, which Republicans currently control by seven seats. Typically, the contests also provide the best political theater, because both candidates have public-service records to contrast.

In Pennsylvania, which lost two seats to reapportionment, the Republican legislature and governor placed Mr. Holden and Mr. Gekas in the same district, expecting Mr. Gekas to win the seat.

But Mr. Holden has run a strong campaign, charging that Mr. Gekas has been a rubber stamp for Republican leaders during his 10 terms in Congress.

Mr. Gekas, meanwhile, argues that Mr. Holden is more liberal than his conservative reputation. National Republican leaders agree, and have put substantial money and manpower into the race to make that case.

"We're committing significant resources because we think at the end of the day, that's our district and they want a Republican, a real Republican, representing them in Washington," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Among the political leaders to campaign for Mr. Gekas this past weekend were Vice President Richard B. Cheney and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican both to make the argument that Mr. Gekas can best represent the district, which voted 62 percent for George W. Bush for president in 2000.

But Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Mr. Holden "represents the values of the district" with his voting record, which is one of the more conservative among Democrats. Mr. Gekas trails Mr. Holden in fund-raising and is at the top of the list of vulnerable Republicans this year.

In Mississippi, Rep. Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, pursued a summertime series of attacks calling for Republican Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. to return $82,000 in campaign contributions from Mississippi-based WorldCom. But the attack didn't stick, and the debate has instead returned to which of the two has better conservative and pro-life credentials.

Poll watchers say it probably won't matter, though Mr. Shows' fate may have been sealed when a court in February drew a congressional district map with black voters making up 30 percent of the population. Democrats had favored a competing plan with 37 percent black voters.

In Connecticut, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Republican, holds a commanding lead over Rep. Jim Maloney, a Democrat. The latest Quinnipiac University poll showed her up 56 percent to 38 percent.

The district leans slightly Democratic, and Mr. Maloney has tried to paint Mrs. Johnson as beholden to business interests and out of touch.

But Republicans say Mrs. Johnson is a tough campaigner whose former district was even more Democratic than the new one, and they say Mr. Maloney's campaign attacks have fallen short because people are familiar with Mrs. Johnson after 20 years in the House.

In Illinois, the new map sliced Rep. David Phelps' old district into three parts and the Democrat chose to run against neighboring Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican.

The sprawling district favors Republicans: Mr. Bush won 58 percent of the vote in 2000 and the most recent published poll, taken on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee, showed Mr. Shimkus leading 52 percent to 36 percent, though Democrats say the race is really much closer.

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