Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy and Republican challenger Tom Manion's prospects in Bucks County's 8th Congressional District could hinge on the fortunes of each party's presidential nominee in November.
But with the Democratic nomination still in doubt, the race is hard to handicap, even for political experts.
Will a high turnout of motivated Democratic voters boost Murphy's prospects, or will Republican John McCain's broad appeal to suburbanites lift Manion's campaign?
''The one thing you want is your voters turning out,'' said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. ''I think this is a pretty good election for Democrats running in the suburbs.''
Still, Madonna said, McCain ''runs well in the suburbs'' and Bucks County voters have been known to split their tickets, voting for some Democrats and some Republicans.
Murphy said he's confident voters will differentiate between the presidential and congressional races, and he will stress his record on issues such as veterans benefits and ending the war in Iraq.
''I disagree with Tom as far as our policy in Iraq,'' said Murphy, the only Iraq war veteran in Congress. ''I think we need to focus on Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan.''
He said he also plans to tout his bipartisan advocacy on local issues such as bringing a national veterans cemetery to Bucks County and completing flood repairs along the Delaware River.
Manion said he thinks voters will have trouble remembering anything Congress has done since Murphy was elected that has made their lives better. He accused Murphy of oversimplifying the Iraq issue by reducing it to a simple question of pulling out the troops, Manion said.
The United States needs an overall plan for the Middle East that accounts for the threats posed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and recognizes the danger of leaving Iraq without first stabilizing it, he said.
''We have to look at this holistically,'' Manion said. ''I want as much as anyone to see this come to a close as quickly as possible,'' as he's sure Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, does too. ''The best way we can do that is to work closely with him and his staff to get it done.''
Manion faces an uphill fundraising battle. Murphy starts the race with a nearly 4-to-1 advantage with $1.6 million in the bank.
But Manion, an executive with Johnson & Johnson, has raised a respectable $423,000 in the first quarter of the year.
The Democratic party -- at least for the moment -- has captured a slim registration majority in the district since voters switched to cast ballots in the party's hotly contested April 22 presidential primary.
Hillary Clinton won Bucks by 63 percent to Barack Obama's 37 percent in the primary, tapping into blue-collar support in the vote-rich lower end of the county, despite Murphy's vocal and early support of Obama.
The next few months could be critical as Manion tries to persuade the national party to pump in the resources he'll need to compete with Murphy, said Republican political consultant Charlie Gerow.
Gerow said Manion's personal story is compelling -- he's a retired Marine colonel whose son Travis was killed in action in Iraq in 2007 -- and will mesh well with GOP war hero McCain's appeal to voters in Bucks County.
''It's got to be a top-tier race,'' Gerow said. He said county voters' lack of support for Obama in the primary could aid the Republican ticket in Bucks County if he ends up the nominee.
The environment will be less favorable for Republicans if Clinton's the nominee, he said.
Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler agrees the race will be competitive, but said Manion is more likely to be hurt by being tied to George Bush than Murphy to Obama.
''Democrats didn't dislike Obama, they just liked Hillary better,'' Ceisler said. ''The problem is George Bush, and the Republican presidential candidate has lost Bucks County several times in a row.''
Gerow said Murphy could be vulnerable to being lumped in with Obama and his negatives, such as his ties with controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, if he is the nominee. The GOP is already testing the approach with ads linking Democrats to Obama and Wright in North Carolina.
Manion said Wednesday that Murphy's support of Obama suggests he's out of touch with district voters.
But Ceisler said Murphy has firmly established his own identity in Bucks County.
Bucks Democratic Party Chairman John Cordisco, who remained neutral in the Clinton-Obama battle, said Murphy has had a good first term and been active in the district.
''I'm not sure what Mr. Manion offers as an alternative,'' Cordisco said.
There's also a local wild card: independent Tom Lingenfelter, a perennial candidate who has run for a variety of offices under both parties' banners in the past decade is also seeking the seat.
The 8th Congressional District includes all of Bucks County, and small parts of Northeast Philadelphia and eastern Montgomery County.
Source: The Morning Call