Pennsylvania's Blue Dog Hangs Tough

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A poster of Bill Clinton hangs in the entry of the state Democratic Party's offices in Harrisburg. But don't look for Clinton's smiling face at Tim Holden's headquarters around the corner. Holden rarely misses a chance to tell voters he's a Blue Dog Democrat — among the most conservative in Congress. Party luminaries like liberal minority leader Richard Gephardt haven't been asked to campaign with Holden — though his race is critical for the Democrats. And Holden would wear a garlic necklace to keep Clinton away.

Which helps explain why he's running neck and neck with Republican George Gekas in one of only four incumbent-vs.-incumbent congressional matchups in the country. Gekas hadn't planned on a tight race. Republicans redrew the boundaries of Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District, intending to snuff out Holden's five-term House career. The state lost two seats after the 2000 census, and the G.O.P.-controlled legislature hoped to protect the party's own. The new 17th, a mix of farmland and job-starved coal-mining terrain plus the state capital, Harrisburg, contains 60% of Gekas' old district and only 40% of Holden's.

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But the Democrat is hanging in there. "First they said Holden won't run; then they said he can't win," says Holden, 45. But the pro-gun, antiabortion, fiscally conservative former sheriff has always drawn a fair share of Republican votes. The line drawers also didn't figure that Gekas' age (72) and longevity in Congress (20 years) would start to become as much of a drag as an asset.

Gekas certainly dates himself. In their first TV debate last week, Holden accused Gekas of voting to eliminate Social Security cost-of-living increases, and the senior incumbent dismissed the vote as having occurred "back when Julius Caesar was in command." (Actually it was Ronald Reagan.) But Gekas, a former prosecutor, showed his vigor in the face-off, interjecting his pet themes — like his "perfect" 14-out-of-14 vote rating from the Farm Bureau.

As one of 40 or so truly competitive races whose outcomes will determine which party controls the House, the Pennsylvania 17th has been a magnet for soft money and interest-group ads. Gekas, who has run unopposed in half his House campaigns, says he finds all the attention "very strange." Holden, who voted for campaign-finance reform, says he can't wait for the ban on soft money to kick in. The National Republican Congressional Committee and its Democratic rival have each committed more than $2 million to the race. United Seniors Association, a group subsidized in large part by the pharmaceutical industry, has spent about $1 million running ads with Art Linkletter touting Gekas' support for a prescription-drug benefit plan. (Holden supports a more comprehensive, Medicare-run plan.) The AFL-CIO has spent about $400,000 attacking, among other things, Gekas' support for nafta. Democrats, having some fun with Gekas' 1998 sponsorship of a measure allowing bankrupt property owners in five states, including Texas, to shield the full value of their homes from creditors, produced a flyer that features a shot of former Enron ceoKen Lay, who owns a multimillion-dollar Houston penthouse.

Both sides' polls show Holden leading. But his chances depend on how many Republicans he can pull in, and with lots of ads to come as well as an expected fly-in by President Bush to shore up Gekas' support, nobody, least of all Holden, is assuming the race is in the bag. Message to Clinton: Stay home.