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Abortion an Issue in Pa.'s 8th District

The 8th Congressional District in Pennsylvania is one of the few competitive House races in the country where abortion appears to be a major issue.

Democrats say Republicans brought up the topic, to their own dismay. Republicans charge it’s part of a smoke-and-mirrors campaign by Democrats to distract from critical issues facing voters there.

"[Abortion] is one of the many, many issues in the campaign," said Republican candidate Mike Fitzpatrick (search), a Bucks County commissioner and abortion opponent. "I think the people of this district are saying, 'Where do these candidates stand on real-life issues?'"

But Democrat Ginny Schrader (search) says Republicans made abortion an issue when they nominated Fitzpatrick, who is vying for the seat of his less-socially-conservative GOP brethren, retiring Rep. Jim Greenwood (search).

"It was off the table when I started running — it was on the table for them," said Schrader, a health care attorney who was running an uphill battle against Greenwood when the popular six-term congressman made a surprise announcement in July that he would be retiring to join a bio-technology firm. His departure threw this district race wide open.

Schrader, who supports abortion rights, said the issue became relevant when members of the Republican ranks faced an internal party struggle, in part, over whether to nominate an abortion rights foe. In the end, Fitzpatrick won out and is now being endorsed by Greenwood, who has been known over the years for his support for abortion rights.

Two third party candidates are also in the race — Erich Lukas, who represents the conservative Constitution Party, and Libertarian Art Farnsworth. Schrader said she hopes to appeal to this moderate district, which tends to vote Democratic in national races but Republican in local contests.

Schrader has attracted the endorsements of national abortion rights groups, including Emily’s List (search) and Planned Parenthood, and has drawn assistance from liberal organizations like MoveOn.org. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has campaigned on her behalf and Schrader has received an endorsement from former presidential candidate Howard Dean (search), who featured her on his "Dean’s Dozen" list.

"She has a much better chance than a right-wing social conservative," said Greg Speed, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (search). "She is someone who will be a lot closer to the way Representative Greenwood was than Fitzpatrick will be."

But not everyone thinks Schrader can succeed on this path, considering that Fitzpatrick has more legislative experience and is playing down the abortion issue in his own campaign.

"The problem is, no one knows who Ginny Schrader is," said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. "The Philadelphia market is expensive and very crowded. She has to reach a level of credibility and identification with the voters."

Bucks County makes up 95 percent of the district and is 48 percent Republican to 37 percent Democratic. It is more affluent and Republican in Upper Bucks County, more middle- and working-class and Democratic in the lower portion of the district, which also includes slivers of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. The district went for Vice President Al Gore over George W. Bush 51 to 46 percent in 2000.

"It’s one of those suburban country districts that everyone talks about as being a key in influencing the state elections," said Josh Wilson, political director of the Pennsylvania Republican Committee.

Fitzpatrick assures he is the better candidate to represent this constituency in Washington, D.C., since he has already represented most of them in his role as county commissioner since 1995.

"This is a very critical time in our nation’s history," said Fitzpatrick. "The people in the county know me, they like my style. I understand how to solve problems and I think I stand in a unique position to get that job done."

He said that in his tenure, he has been proactive in environmental issues, which are important, particularly to Upper Bucks County. He said he has also been involved in health and human services, particularly in drug and alcohol treatment issues, mental retardation and health care. He supports small business as a way to improve the economy and supports the president’s decisions in the War on Terror (search), including the invasion of Iraq.

He said his opponent "underestimates the intelligence of the people of this district" by assuming they will vote on the issue of abortion alone.

Bo Harmon, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee (search), said he believes Schrader is trying to mask her shakiness on other issues.

"[Fitzpatrick’s] advantage is, he is the only person in the race who has taken a position on any issue at any point in the past that is important to the voters in this community," he said.

"He’s wildly popular in the district," added Wilson. "Fighting for the community there in Bucks County for 10 years is something people are going to look at."

Speed said Republicans call Schrader a one-issue candidate, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. "It’s a lot of spin."

Schrader, a vice president with American International Recovery (AIG) insurers, insists that she has been running on several issues important to the district, particularly health care, something she knows quite a bit about.

"My issues are health care and the economy — those are the issues I was working on last December and those are still the main issues for me," she said. 

As far as she is concerned, Fitzpatrick’s experience as county commissioner doesn’t necessarily trump her own background in the private sector.

"He’s been a county commissioner and that’s a relatively small pond," she said. "My experience in the last 16 years in a major fortune 500 company … is experience I can use in Washington and is better than any county commission."

Democrats are hoping that the Democratic bent in the district, at least in the national race, will bring out Kerry voters, spilling over into Schrader’s column on the ballot.

"This is a place that will have heavy turnout — it’s a presidential battleground — and it’s a district Kerry will win," said Speed. "And we’re confident we will have the resources to get her message out."