WASHINGTON – The Philadelphia suburbs is one of the few areas in the country that could decide the congressional majority in Washington — a distinction not lost on Republican Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, who on Nov. 7 faces a determined Iraq war veteran in an anti-war climate.
"I realize these are tough political times, and, there is a candidate running against me who loves to talk about the (Bush) administration and loves to talk about the 'need for change,'" Fitzpatrick said of his Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy.
"But he's not running against the president, and he's not running against the Republican Congress, he's running against Mike Fitzpatrick," the freshman member of Congress told FOXNews.com.
It may seem like a lifetime ago, but Fitzpatrick's election to Congress two years ago featured the classic match-up between Fitzpatrick, an abortion opponent, and Virginia Schrader, an abortion rights supporter. Fitzpatrick won handily in one of the few races that centered on that topic.
Today, the abortion issue is a contentious whisper of the past, and the nation's preoccupation with Iraq has taken center stage in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.
While Murphy tries to capitalize on public sentiment against the war and administration strategy for Iraq, Fitzpatrick said he has no trouble breaking from President Bush and the GOP when he believes he's right.
"It's not easy as a freshman member of Congress to be one of the most likely to vote against his party or the administration …(voting) where my conscience and where my responsibility to the district dictate," he said.
But Murphy, a lawyer and West Point teacher of constitutional law, says he doesn't buy Fitzpatrick's claim of independence. He returned from duty in Iraq, he said, disenchanted with the war policy and in the way soldiers and Marines were equipped to fight the insurgency there. He blames Fitzpatrick for not asking tough questions, for approving a bad war policy and for not acting more aggressively on behalf of the troops and veterans.
"Right now our troops are serving in Iraq without a clear mission, without benchmarks to determine success or failure and without a clear timeline for either coming home or redeploying to fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan," he says on his campaign Web site.
Murphy is unabashed about what he believes needs to be done. "We need a timeline to bring our troops home," he said at a recent press conference with Vet PAC, a political action committee funding veteran and non-veteran candidates, all of whom are Democrats critical of the administration's handling of the war.
Murphy said he envisions a plan in which all National Guard troops are brought home immediately and the remaining troops are withdrawn through 2007. He said a "strike force" near the border of Iraq and Kuwait is needed to deter "Iranian aggression," and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld must go.
As disheartened as Fitzpatrick says he is with the way the war is going, he does not support a timeline for withdrawing troops.
"My call for a new strategy for success includes more resources to complete the training of Iraqi security, greater accountability and transparency" in the rebuilding process. He said U.S troops should come home as Iraqi divisions become ready to defend their country.
Murphy spokeswoman Carrie James called Fitzpatrick's position on the war is one of political expedience. She said voters in Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District are looking for more than that.
"[Murphy's] proposal to bring the troops home in the next 12 months is really resonating in this district," James said.
Political analysts say this race will indeed be very close, and it's volatility is due to the changing national climate. However, election observers are generally giving Fitzpatrick a slight edge.
The 8th District is primarily comprised of Bucks County, a fairly affluent suburb of Philadelphia, which has more registered Republicans than Democrats but tends to vote Democratic in state and national races. In 2004, it helped elect Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, and backed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry over President Bush.
Despite these circumstances, Fitzpatrick supporters note the incumbent's defeat of Schrader in 2004, and say his independence reflects genuine loyalty to the district, which he served for a decade as a county commissioner.
“He’s independent, he’s a fighter. He fights on behalf of his constituents,” said Matt Burns, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party. “He is thoughtful, he has a tremendous grasp of the issues. If you look at his opponent, he’s little more than scripted talking points that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gives him.”
Colleagues say Fitzpatrick has solidified his support in the district, which everyone agrees is moderate on both the social and economic issues.
“It's not his style to inject himself into every single debate that gets brought up around here. He's one of a dying breed of lawmakers that genuinely and thoroughly thinks through an issue before rushing in to it,” said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa.
According to Congressional Quarterly, in 2006, Fitzpatrick voted with his party only 62 percent of the time — the fourth lowest “party unity” score in the House. In 2005, he voted with the GOP 76 percent of the time.
But other issues beside the war, like supporting a ban on stem cell research and privatizing Social Security, put Fitzpatrick out of sync with the district, Democrats say.
"Despite Fitzpatrick's desperate attempt to run from his record of standing with President Bush, the facts clearly show that when it matters most he stands with Bush on Iraq, stem cell research and Social Security instead of standing for the interests of Pennsylvania families," said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Col. Richard Klass, director of Vet PAC, says that aside from Murphy's unique perspective as a veteran and constitutional scholar, broader issues make the Democratic candidate more attractive.
"He comes from a very middle class, working class, background. He has siblings, and parents and friends who are losing their health care, their jobs and their pensions. He can represent (district voters) who need help,” Klass said.
Abe Amoros, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said Murphy is a perfect fit for the political climate, and this time, this Philly suburb will vote for a Democrat to represent it on Capitol Hill.
“Patrick is very bright, very energetic,” he said. “He’s young and enthusiastic and sharp contrast to what is happening in Washington.”