By Andrew Miga
The nation's financial crisis has thrown a twist into Republican Rep. Christopher Shays' re-election fight this fall.
Shays narrowly survived a challenge two years ago from Democrat Diane Farrell, who took sharp aim at Shays' Iraq war support in the southwestern Connecticut district where anti-war sentiment runs strong. It was a rematch that echoed Farrell's 2004 challenge.
This fall, economic issues are dominating the campaign's final weeks as Shays battles Democrat Jim Himes. Iraq is taking a back seat.
Shays has represented the 4th District anchored by Greenwich and other wealthy suburbs outside New York City since 1987. Shays' district, where many voters work on Wall Street or have ties to the financial services industry, has been particularly hard hit by the recent economic turmoil.
"It's taken all the air out of the room," Himes said. "It's all economy, all the time. We use the word 'economy,' but this is real pain for lots of people."
Democrats consider Shays one of the most vulnerable House Republicans this fall. The candidates have raised millions of dollars, aware that the 2006 contest was one of the most expensive in the nation.
A poll by Sacred Heart University showed Shays with a 10-point lead last month. But 29 percent of voters were undecided, a reminder the race remains competitive.
Himes, a former Goldman Sachs vice president who runs Northeast operations at Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing operation, has hammered away at Shays and his Republican colleagues for deregulating markets and for failing to provide proper oversight.
"They'll be choosing between a guy who spent 12 years on Wall Street and who understands financial services ... and a guy who utterly and completely failed in his oversight obligation," Himes said.
The Shays camp bristled at the charge.
"For Christopher, the current economic situation and the triggers and causes of it are something he's been warning about since 2002," said Shays campaign manager Michael Sohn. "This is an issue Chris Shays has been warning about and screaming about for a long time."
Shays, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, has railed at the "toxic twins" -- mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- and their ties to members of Congress in both parties before their collapse.
"Getting to the bottom of this -- wherever that takes us -- is our obligation, but requires us not just to look at the CEOs of Lehman or AIG, but at ourselves and the wretched manipulation by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of the Congress of the United States of America," Shays said Monday at a congressional hearing.
Shays voted for the $700 billion financial bailout that Congress recently passed, even though he said it was not a perfect bill and that most of his constituents opposed it. Himes called the legislation a "necessary evil."
The focus on economic woes is a far cry from 2006 when Shays' Iraq war support nearly cost him his seat. Shays was the only House Republican from New England to keep his seat as Democrats swept to power that fall.
Farrell, former first selectwoman of Westport, hit Shays hard on the war. Initially one of Congress' strongest war backers, Shays said during his 2006 race that U.S. policies weren't working and that he supported the concept of a timeline for withdrawing troops.
Shays went further last year and said he favored a December 2008 timetable for withdrawing most U.S. forces. Previously, he urged President Bush to come up with a timeline for pulling out troops.
"There was a conversion," said Gary Rose, a professor of politics at Sacred Heart University. "So in that respect you could say he did disconnect himself from Bush, and he did it just in time. I, for one, think that's what saved him in 2006."
Shays, as he did in 2006, is stressing his independent ways bucking the Bush administration and his own party while working with Democrats.
Shays, who co-chairs Republican John McCain's campaign in Connecticut, even included a favorable mention of McCain's Democratic rival Barack Obama in a campaign TV ad earlier this year.
"The hopefulness of Obama, the straight talk of McCain," an announcer said in the ad. "It's what Christopher Shays has always stood for."
Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, said the key question this fall is how closely voters will associate Shays, a Republican, with the Bush administration. Bush lost the district to John Kerry in the 2004 White House race.
"That's what the remainder of the campaign will be about," McLean said. "Himes will talk about last eight years, and Shays will emphaszie how he's different from the last eight years."