CORTLANDT MANOR, N.Y. – Pop songwriter John Hall has been hitting all the right notes in his congressional race against Republican Rep. Sue Kelly.
Thanks to a blend of Democratic momentum, Stephen Colbert, YouTube and his own minor league celebrity, strategists say Hall — a long shot Democratic challenger — could topple Kelly, who has represented New York's 19th Congressional district since being swept into office as part of the 1994 GOP revolution.
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The distance Hall has traveled since announcing his candidacy was underscored by former President Clinton, who headlined a campaign rally with him here this week.
"Enter John Hall. When he filed (for the race), it must have looked like a fool's errand," Clinton said. "But he's a musician, so he has to believe in the impossible, and he's a grass-roots activist, so he understands the power of citizens to change the world."
The momentum has been swinging in favor of Hall, who penned the 1970s pop tunes "Still the One" and "Dance with Me" and produced albums for Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Democrat Eliot Spitzer, the overwhelming favorite for governor, also campaigned with him this week. The influential New York Times editorial page has endorsed Hall. And while not committing much in the way of direct funding, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week added the contest to its so-called "Red to Blue" list of emerging races.
Kelly, 70, has generally been viewed as a good fit for this sprawling district in the heart of the Hudson Valley. An abortion rights supporter who has occasionally bucked the GOP leadership in Washington, Kelly bills herself a "quiet leader" who has brought important federal resources to the district. She also holds a significant cash advantage over Hall, whom she derides as an out-of-step, tax-raising liberal.
But Kelly has been forced to contend with a number of challenges, including a connection to the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who resigned after sexually explicit e-mails he sent to young male pages became public. Kelly served on the Page Board from 1999-2000, when some of the allegations against Foley were made.
Kelly has said she was never made aware of any problems with Foley. She responded furiously in a recent debate with Hall, who suggested she could have done more to ensure the safety of the pages.
"I just can't believe that you would accuse me, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a teacher of doing something that would harm children," Kelly said. "I have fought for children all of my life! You have no shame!"
A video clip of Kelly's outburst is one of many moments in the race that have been immortalized on YouTube, the popular video sharing Web site. Indeed, the Hall-Kelly contest has become something of a fixture across the so-called "new media" landscape.
On his nightly Comedy Central show, faux-TV anchor Stephen Colbert profiled the race as part of his series on the 2006 election. Colbert and Hall harmonized a duet of "Dance With Me," and the comedian mocked Kelly for declining to appear. Noting that Velveeta cheese was invented in the 19th district, Colbert deadpanned that Kelly, like Velveeta, "melts at the first sign of heat."
Kelly also appeared to be melting a bit when she was filmed running away from a local television news crew trying to press her about appearing in debates. That clip, also on YouTube, has received nearly 30,000 hits.
Kelly said she was running to get out of the rain and that the endless exposure on sites like YouTube had the effect of distorting the race.
For his part, Hall, who has placed universal health care and energy independence at the heart of his campaign, says he's been willing to try his hand at new media to get his message out.
In the end, Republican strategists said they believe Kelly will pull out a victory in the race, because her campaign had long been ready for the worst. If the National Republican Congressional Committee was concerned, the GOP would have spent more than $6,496.86 for phone banks against the Democrat.
"You could see it coming a year ago, and we were preparing for the race of our life," Kelly spokesman Jay Townsend said. "The environment for a Republican in New York is not good. You get a year where the stars are aligned against you, so the best defense is to prepare and be prepared."