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Stamford Advocate - "Himes, Shays cross bridge in campaign"

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Stamford Advocate - "Himes, Shays cross bridge in campaign"

The candidates in the 4th District congressional race have a bridge they want to sell voters, but it's not the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's aptly named the Congress Street bridge, and it used to connect downtown Bridgeport to the city's east end.

The drawbridge is stuck in the upright position.

Himes blames the bridge's condition on what he called as the misplaced priorities of U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Bridgeport, who Himes has said has been a key backer of the costly war in Iraq at the expense of his district.

Michael Sohn, campaign manager for Shays, said the charge was simplistic.

"This is just a perfect example where Jim Himes needs to understand the issues better," Sohn said. "The Congress Street bridge is something that Chris has worked on but has not been a priority of the business council or the mayors of Bridgeport."

Sohn pointed out that two bridges are within walking distance that cross the Pequonnock River and connect the city's east end to downtown - at Stratford Avenue and at East Washington Avenue.

It's not Labor Day, and the two candidates, as well as their surrogates, are going full-throttle in the high-stakes race.

Himes' argument that there is a correlation linking the war, the economy and the homefront is likely to dominate a nationally watched race in New England's lone Republican House district.

"An entire swath of the city is cut off from the downtown area," Himes said. "I think it's critical that the U.S. government and certainly our congressman be focused on the problems right here at home."

Shays, 62, departed Wednesday for a Middle East trip that will take him to Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan before he returns Friday. It his 21st trip to Iraq since the start of the war - the most of any member of Congress.

Himes, 42, who was coming off a landslide victory in Tuesday's primary over petition candidate and fellow Greenwich resident Lee Whitnum, planned to spend the weekend campaigning at a carnival in Riverside, a Norwalk concert and other events.

"I certainly am taking no August vacation," said Himes, a former chairman of the Democratic Town Committee in Greenwich.

Himes captured 87 percent of the vote in last week's primary, a contest marred by low turnout with a better-than-expected showing by Whitnum in Bridgeport, where she received nearly a quarter of the votes.

His aides downplayed Whitnum's showing, saying her name appeared on the same line of the ballot as Christopher Caruso, Andres Ayala Jr. and Auden Grogins, who were victorious in their primaries for state House.

"I think it had everything to do with the strength of the candidates running on Line B in Bridgeport," said Maura Keaney, Himes' campaign manager.

Bridgeport, where blacks account for 30 percent of the population, could hold the key to the election, with presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama expected to bring many Democratic black voters to the polls in November.

"I would expect that Obama being at the top of the ticket would help Himes. It can make a huge difference," said Kenneth Dautrich, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut.

Himes' aides confirmed that they have reached out to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to visit the district, which includes most of Fairfield County and a sliver of New Haven County, to campaign on behalf of their candidate.

A spokeswoman for Obama's campaign said the request was being considered.

Shays' campaign manager said the incumbent has a solid rapport with minority voters and has worked hard for the cities of Bridgeport and Stamford.

"Connecticut isn't the place where people blindly vote party line. No one town or city decides an election," Sohn said. "Chris has been an integral part of the growth and expansion in the 4th District. He has been an effective congressman and will continue to do so."

At the same time, state GOP leaders said it's their hope and expectation that Shays will get an assist from those with whom he has worked closely in Congress, including presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

"The key is always getting your vote out. John McCain and Chris, in many ways, are both mavericks," said Christopher Healy, state GOP chairman. "There's no competition between what Chris Shays has done and what he stands for and what Mr. Himes says he's for."

Although Himes had never run for office outside of Greenwich until Tuesday's primary, Republicans said they know they are in for a tough fight and expect groups, such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, to pour a lot of money into the effort to unseat Shays.

"The Democrats have been writing Chris Shays' obituary for years. It still hasn't been published," said Healy, who previously was campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Stonington, a casualty of the 2006 mid-term elections.

Shays, first elected in 1987, was the lone Republican House member in New England to survive the 2006 election.

Among those writing Shays' political obituary is state Democratic Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo.

"It seems to me that this year we have a great chance of winning with Jim Himes because Chris Shays has lost touch with the voters of the 4th congressional District," DiNardo said.

Several factors, she said, give her hope, including increased enrollment in the party, Himes' solid grassroots campaign, and Shays' ties to President Bush and what many say are his failed policies.

She accused Shays of flip-flopping on critical issues during election years, saying the incumbent backed a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq during his last campaign, only to change course later. She also charged Shays with shifting his position from opposition to support of off-shore drilling for oil.

"He is a strong supporter of Bush and that's very evident," DiNardo said.

Shays' GOP supporters disputed DiNardo's claims.

"Chris votes against timelines that are unrealistic and supports a comprehensive energy policy that includes short-term, as well as long- term solutions to the cost of energy today," Sohn said.

And Republicans defended Shays' stances on issues.

"The fact that we're even talking about a different approach in Iraq is because of the surge and the policies Chris Shays pushed for months ago," Healy said. "He's been to Iraq. He looks people in the eye who he sends to war. So he knows what he's talking about."

He said the voters 4th District should remember the 2006 mid-term elections that were dominated by the Democrats.

"They're the ones who won in 2006 because they said things would be different," Healy said. "The only thing different is gas is $4 a gallon."

Dautrich, who has followed Shays' political career, said the incumbent has vulnerabilities such as his perceived ties with Bush.

"There's a tendency to blame the incumbent party, and, unfortunately, he's wearing the Republican albatross around his neck," Dautrich said. "The thing is with Chris Shays, you just can't count him out."

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