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Hartford Courant - Democrat Challenger: Shays District Ripe For Taking

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Hartford Courant - Democrat Challenger: Shays District Ripe For Taking

On a steamy walk from Greenwich to Bridgeport, Jim Himes crossed the diverse habitat of an endangered political species.

He covered 22 miles Saturday campaigning on foot across the length of the congressional district represented by Chris Shays, the only Republican holding a U.S. House seat in New England.

"This is our physical demonstration of how much we need to go in a new direction," Himes told the changing cast of volunteers who followed him on a 14-hour walking tour to meet voters throughout the Fairfield County district. "Stay hydrated. Stay safe."

Himes, 41, who left Wall Street six years ago for a job with a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, is the Democrats' latest hope to win a district populated by some of the richest and poorest people in America.

With an influx of new Democratic voters, many of them drawn to the party by Sen. Barack Obama, the Himes campaign says the 4th Congressional District is ripe for a change after 21 years of representation by Shays.

"There is a general leftward trend in the district," said Maura Keaney, who volunteered for Ned Lamont's anti-war Senate campaign in '06 and is managing Himes' effort this year.

The district went for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election and for Al Gore in 2000. National polling this year predicts a hard time for Republican incumbents in competitive districts.

Still, the hard-to-pigeonhole Shays has defied political trends throughout his career. Shays launched his career by a winning a state legislative seat in the post-Watergate election of 1974, a debacle for the GOP.

Himes must clear an unexpected hurdle before facing Shays: a Democratic primary in August forced by Lee Whitnum, a substitute teacher who became a footnote to the 2004 presidential campaign with a website publicizing a long-ago romance with Kerry.

Whitnum also published a novel, "Hedge Fund Mistress," which describes a romance with a U.S. senator. It has sold poorly, ranking behind 1.3 million other books on Amazon.

Whitnum petitioned her way onto the ballot after finding no support at the nominating convention. She has raised $5,000, compared to $1.4 million for Himes.

"It hasn't much changed our strategy. We will take the primary very seriously," Himes said. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity for us to talk about issues at a moment in time when ordinarily people would have very limited interest."

Shays agrees. On Friday night, before he addressed a Republican Party fundraiser in Stamford, Shays said the primary could raise the profile of his challenger.

"The only time a primary is bad is when there is a huge group of people unhappy afterward," Shays said.

Whitnum's challenge does not appear to represent a schism among Democrats.

Whitnum, 48, says her high-technology career was derailed by an influx of foreign workers. She said she objects to Himes as another privileged white male candidate.

"All they know is prosperity," Whitnum said. "If you don't have politicians who will protect the people, who will protect the people?"

She has feuded as much with bloggers as with Himes, complaining that they have mischaracterized her novel and kept alive web postings she had hoped to delete, a near-impossibility in the online world.

"It is a lawless land," she said.

The prospect of a primary did not dissuade the Connecticut AFL-CIO from endorsing Himes last week.

Himes lived in Peru and Colombia as a child, when his father was a Ford Foundation official. He moved to New Jersey with his mother after his parents divorced.

"Miss Whitnum has been characterizing me as someone who hasn't really had to work hard for things," Himes said. "I grew up in a single-working-mom household in a small town. I worked every single job there was to work in that small town."

Himes and Whitnum each have Harvard degrees and live in Greenwich.

On Saturday, Himes was joined on his walk by Bruce Morris, a state representative and minister in an African American evangelical church just outside Norwalk's trendy SoNo district.

Morris said that Himes, who must turn out the urban vote to win, will play well in the black and Latino communities.

With his time in South America, Himes speaks fluent Spanish.

He gave up a career with Goldman Sachs to join Enterprise Development, a nonprofit developer founded by the late philanthropist James Rouse.

"When people here learn he is a white guy from Greenwich who has a history of working on affordable housing and other issues, in time his credibility will rise," Morris said. "His current occupation, walking away from Wall Street ... that will be the qualifier. That's what sold me."

Housing, jobs and education - important issues to his work at Enterprise - now have joined the war in Iraq as key issues, Himes said.

Shays has aligned himself with Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman as a supporter of U.S. involvement in Iraq, while Himes views the invasion as a "catastrophe."

"It's a new world now vs. a year ago," Himes said.

"People are still very angry and concerned about the war, which of course you know two years ago was probably at the top of everybody's mind. Now we've got the economy, and where we are economically is not an accident. It is a result of government policy."

Most national political handicappers this year rate the Himes/Shays contest a toss-up.

Shays, now 62, won the seat with 57 percent of the vote in a special election after the death of Stewart McKinney in 1987. After a series of easy wins, Democrat Diane Farrell held him to 52 percent in 2004 and 51 in 2006.

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