If Pennsylvania has always been a battleground state for Republicans and Democrats, then the 6th congressional district — an oddly carved-out area that encompasses parts of Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties, including Lower Merion Township — has often served as the front line, a region where candidates and the national parties have spent millions of dollars in order to sway voters.
In three previous congressional elections, U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, a 53-year-old Republican, has never won by a margin larger than 2 percentage points.
In fact, in both 2004 and 2006, it wasn't clear until the morning after Election Day that he'd held off repeat challenger Lois Murphy.
But this year, with a large fundraising advantage and a Democratic opponent, Bob Roggio — with less name recognition than candidates in previous election cycles — some observers think that Gerlach could finally cruise to re-election.
Roggio, a 61-year-old retired Chester County businessman who most recently worked in constituent services for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), does have one significant advantage over his opponent. For the first time in recent memory, Democrats — no doubt spurred on by the historic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — now outnumber Republicans in the district by about 9,000 registered voters. That's a far larger sum than the difference in any of Gerlach's previous narrow wins.
"I don't think two years ago or four years ago, anybody thought that could happen," said Roggio, who for 30 years headed a company that sold bathroom products. Roggio got his start in politics by volunteering for John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.
Roggio, who labels himself a fiscal conservative, is working hard to portray Gerlach as being closely aligned with the domestic and foreign policies of President George W. Bush, who has brought about record deficit levels.
"Jim Gerlach has been in office for six years, and has voted with Bush 100 percent of the time on the Iraq war," he said.
Gerlach — who's held office since he was first elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1990 — is quick to point out that the National Journal rated him as one of most independent lawmakers in Congress, and that he opposed Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, as well as the president's 2007 veto of a measure to increase federally funded children's health insurance.
But Gerlach said that he supports the overall strategy on the war on terrorism, including the decision to invade Iraq and begin a troop buildup in early 2007, a time when many Democrats were calling for withdrawal.
"We continue to lead the fight in the world against Islamic Jihadism," said Gerlach.
Roggio, on the other hand, argued that "we shouldn't have been in Iraq. I really blame a lot of our inability to react to the situation in [the former Soviet Republic of] Georgia as a responsibility of this administration."
On the Mideast Front
In terms of the lingering prospect of a nuclear Iran and the threat that such a development could pose for the United States and Israel, both candidates outlined similar approaches, calling for increased sanctions and aggressive diplomacy.
Both men also said that the United States must do all it can to prevent Iran from obtaining atomic weapons.
"I don't think we are at a point where an attack on Iran is imminent," said Gerlach. "Hopefully, Iran will make wise and prudent decisions."
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Roggio has criticized the current administration for failing to make peace talks much of a priority until late in 2007.
"Israel is the key to the whole Middle East," said Roggio. "This distraction in Iraq really took our eye off the ball. We really could have progressed dramatically in the Middle East if we had concentrated on the Israeli-Palestinian problem and also had finished the job in Afghanistan."
Gerlach lauded recent peacemaking efforts, but also offered a caveat.
"When Hamas controls the Palestinian government, it's very difficult to come to an agreement," said Gerlach. Hamas runs Gaza, and the Fatah movement is ostensibly in charge of the West Bank. "I put this at the feet of Hamas. It is not Israel's fault, and it is not the United States' fault."
With energy and gas prices a top-tier election issue, Gerlach is among the group of House Republicans calling for a vote to expand offshore drilling to increase the domestic oil supply and reduce dependence on foreign fossil fuels.
"Just by passing legislation, we will be sending a very strong signal to the futures market, and that could drop prices," he said. "We also need to have a stronger conservation effort here in this country, and we need to expand nuclear-power capacity."
Instead of expanded off-shore drilling, Roggio favors a strategy of offering tax credits to individuals to invest in companies that are developing new technologies for alternative energy sources; he also favors tax breaks for the purchase of hybrid cars.
Said Roggio: "We can't — and no other country can — drill our way out of the oil problem."