FAIRLESS HILLS, Pa. -- The fighting Irishmen of Pennsylvania's 8th congressional district pulled no punches in the final two debates of a bellwether
race that will tell just how the beleaguered Democrats will fare on Nov. 2.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, the incumbent Democrat, pummeled his opponent as "the tax cut fairy" because he wants to extend the Bush tax cuts to "the Paris Hiltons of the world" even though it will cost the treasury $700 billion over 10 years.
Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, who lost the suburban Philadelphia House seat to Murphy after a single term, punched back that the Democrat "ought to go back and take basic economics at the community college because I think you missed a course" on the advantages of free trade.
"When he had the chance to lead, he did nothing," Murphy counterpunched at another point as he repeatedly interrupted and cut off his opponent.
"I was in Congress for two years," Fitzpatrick jabbed back, "but the congressman likes to blame me for everything that's gone wrong in this country for the last 20 years."
Two hours after moderator Larry Kane closed "the fight in Fairless Hills," the two battled it out again in Bristol.
This is as personal as it gets. Yet how this campaign ends may hinge on something much bigger than both of them.
In 2006, Murphy rode a Democratic wave of anti-war fervor to unseat Fitzpatrick and become the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress. But his margin of victory in this swing district was a mere 1,518 votes. Now, hobbled by a paltry job approval rating
, he faces a Republican tsunami that threatens to wash him out of office in a similarly tight race.
"This grudge match was tight in 2006 and could be so again in 2010," said Isaac Wood, who follows House races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and has rated the race as leaning Republican. "This time it is Democrats who are on their heels, and Murphy has never run a race in an environment that did not favor his party."
Murphy cruised to re-election two years ago against an underfunded opponent and with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. Fitzpatrick sat out the race to undergo chemotherapy after being diagnosed with colon cancer
. Declared cancer-free by doctors, the 47-year-old decided to use his new lease on life to stage a political comeback.
Fitzpatrick held a double-digit lead in last month's Franklin and Marshall College Poll
but a more recent survey
shows him trailing Murphy by three points. Although the race has narrowed, the national Democratic campaign committee this week canceled ads
on Murphy's behalf in the expensive Philadelphia TV market, an act of triage that indicated other embattled incumbents may be more salvageable.
Obama still on the ballot
When Fitzpatrick, a long-time Bucks County commissioner, ran the first time for what would be a short sojourn on Capitol Hill, registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the 8th District. Since then, Democrats have taken the lead.
But these Democrats overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton over Obama in their party's 2008 primary. Though Obama went on to win the district by nine points over John McCain, many conservative Democrats and independents here have not forgotten that Murphy was one of the first members of Congress to throw his support behind the senator from Illinois.
"It's so close because Murphy is as close to Obama as any member of the House," said political scientist Terry Madonna, who runs the Franklin and Marshall poll.
Fitzpatrick has used the incumbent's close association with Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- she tapped him to lead the party in urging a troop withdrawal from Iraq and pushing to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays -- as a cudgel. He often cites the congressman's positions on health care reform, cap-and-trade and "cash for clunkers
" as evidence he "votes lockstep with the Obama-Pelosi agenda 97 percent of the time."
That line prompted head nodding at the candidates' first debate Thursday at a mostly Republican Chamber of Commerce meeting here.
"Murphy is for more socialism. I am not for socialism," said Maria Wallace, 62, a customer service representative from Bristol. "He's an Obama man."
Murphy, a Blue Dog Democrat
and at 37 one of the youngest members of Congress, counters that he is an independent voice who has bucked Pelosi and the party establishment. He notes that on immigration he opposed a federal lawsuit to strike down Arizona's controversial law and agreed with his GOP opponent that undocumented immigrants should be deported.
"When my party is right, I'm with them," he said. "When they're wrong, I'm not with them."
The Democrat, in turn, has slammed Fitzpatrick on his 2005 vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, saying it helped send thousands of American jobs overseas. He often mentions the Jones New York plant in Bristol that closed the year after the CAFTA vote.
Tamar Wirth's daughter was one of the workers who lost her job when Jones New York shipped its pattern-making operations overseas. Wirth voted for Fitzpatrick in 2004. "Then he did exactly the opposite of what he said he would do," said Wirth, 74, of Levittown. "I don't trust him." She plans to vote for Murphy this time.
'A bipolar district'
The son of a Philadelphia cop, Murphy hasn't lost his thick Philly accent. Or his penchant for sometimes salty
language. He has even likened Fitzpatrick to "an Alabama Republican." Epithets don't get much nastier in the Northeast.
"Murphy is a very emotional candidate. He let's his feelings out," said Kane, a long-time political observer known locally as the dean of Philadelphia news anchors. Fitzpatrick -- who more than once in the debates pleaded "Congressman, please. Let me be heard on this." -- is more "energetically low-key," he said.
The contrast in styles mirrors a district made up bucolic and
industrial Bucks County as well as a sliver of working class northeast Philadelphia, where Murphy grew up. It encompasses Levittown
, the iconic post-World War II suburb where Fitzpatrick lived, and the country homes of New York theater types like Stephen Sondheim.
The 8th is "a bipolar district" said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. While the lower, blue-collar half has suffered greatly from the recession, the top, more liberal half has fared well thanks to steady real estate prices. "The district has always swung back and forth and anyone holding the seat is forever at risk, be that person Democrat or Republican," he said.
At the moment, it is the Democrat's seat to lose. The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $225,000 to help Fitzpatrick take back his old seat. It plans to stay on the air until Election Day even as its Democratic counterpart has pulled out.
Despite his party's departure, local Democrats
are rallying to Murphy, who is blanketing TV and radio with negative ads and still leads
in fundraising. "His saving grace is that he is sitting on a pile of cash," Madonna said.
Then again, four years ago it was Fitzpatrick who had more cash. And he hasn't forgotten whom voters eventually sent to Washington.