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Sessions-Frost Race Could Be Nail-Biter of 2004

When Republicans in Texas redrew the congressional lines, they targeted vulnerable Democrats and created more GOP-friendly districts.

But popular 25-year incumbent Rep. Martin Frost (search), a Democrat, said the House Majority leadership better check its high hopes at the door because he’s not going anywhere.

"I think it is a very winnable district," Frost told Foxnews.com, playing down reports the new 32nd District in which he is running this November favors Republicans. "I’m looking forward to the race."

In what analysts say could be the most expensive and exciting House race this year, Frost will face-off with Republican incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions (search), who said he, too, plans on coming back to Washington next session.

"The day he said he would be the Republicans’ worst nightmare was the day I said, 'Please, please, file in the 32nd, bring it on,'" Sessions told Foxnews.com.

Both men are running in a new district, all of which resides in Dallas County in North Texas. Sessions, now in the former 32nd District, brings with him 52 percent of his old turf, which he has represented since 2002. He was first elected to the House in 1996 in the 5th Congressional District on the other side of Dallas County.

Frost brings with him 20 percent of his old 24th District, but he notes that he has lived in the new district for 29 years and represented voters there at different points since he was first elected to Congress in 1979. He claims that a high minority population – 30 percent Hispanic and with a notable Jewish contingent – he’s the only Jewish representative from Texas – will make up for the dominant Republican make-up.

Perhaps the Texas congressional primary results, which took place on March 9, are an indication of just how close this race might be. While both Sessions and Frost ran unopposed in their respective parties, 54 percent of Republicans turned out and voted for Sessions, while 46 percent of Democrats turned out and voted for Frost.

"[Frost] chose this district very carefully," said Forth Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders, who has been writing about the race. He said Frost is a prolific fundraiser, a two-time Democratic Caucus chairman with a lot of connections in Dallas. "He is the most powerful Democrat in Texas right now; I don’t think anyone thinks about that."

"If there were anyone to pull an upset, I would bet on Martin Frost," he said.

Sessions, a conservative, says the race will shake out based on voters who want someone who attacks former Texas governor and now President George W. Bush, or someone who supports him, particularly on tax cuts and the war in Iraq.

"It’s a collision course," he said. Noting that "Republicans will have to work hard" to reach out to new constituencies, Sessions said his views that Texans should be in ownership of their health care, retirement and take-home pay will win out over Frost’s big government positions.

"This district is Pete Sessions’ and he’s going to win it hands-down," said Chris Paulitz, spokesman for the Republican National Congressional Committee. "Martin Frost is completely, utterly, out of touch with the people of this district, and it's just not on social or fiscal issues, it’s on everything."

Frost denounces the liberal label, saying he has worked hard to achieve bipartisan goals. He also takes credit for helping Texas in its pursuit for assistance to the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system and for helping to derail a looming Texas-based American Airlines strike last year.

"That’s what they say about every Democrat," Frost said, calling Sessions a libertarian who "is really out of the mainstream.

"I voted for the war, I support the death penalty," he said. "They can say (I am a liberal) but I don’t think they will be successful."

On the other hand, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed said Sessions is in voters’ minds "clearly identified with the most extreme right wing elements in his Republican caucus."

Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (search), R-Texas, who is both blamed and credited for the new Texas map, said Frost’s campaign is already slinging mud, but the GOP is ready for the fight.

"(Frost) is the master of gutter politics," he said. "Congressman Sessions is going to win this race and he’s going to win it because he has been an extremely effective representative."

But Texas Democratic Rep. Charlie Stenholm (search), who also faces an incumbent in November’s election, said if Republicans want to fight on the issues, Frost has the advantage, particularly on issues of job losses and deficits.

"People are beginning to see that the game plan of the Republican majority is not working well," he said. "Martin is going to win that race."

Sanders said Frost will not be able to encourage typical class warfare because this district is not only diverse in ethnicity, but ranges from the very poor to the very rich, with a lot of seniors who are paying attention to what is happening on the Medicare front. With both men fighting for their political lives, he added, and both parties viewing this race against greater political implications, this could be the nail-biter of the election season.

"The Republicans can’t stand to see Frost do the unthinkable," and possibly win this GOP-drawn district, and "Frost will run hard for it," said Sanders. "They are going to be fighting hard – I think it will be one of the most expensive congressional campaigns in the country."

In 2002, Frost beat Republican opponent Mike Rivera Ortega 65 to 34 percent and outspent him $1.6 million to $37,000. Sessions beat his Democratic opponent Pauline Dixon 68 percent to 30 percent and outspent her $730,500 to $11,000.

As of Feb. 18, Frost had $806,443 in the bank; Sessions had a little more than $1 million, more than 50 percent from individual donations.