Matchup ensures Iraq issue keeps burning in Pennsylvania district

Republican Tom Manion became the first major challenger to Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) on Tuesday, setting up a compelling race between the Iraq veteran freshman and the father of a soldier killed in the war.

The potential match-up comes as the war appears to be fading behind the economy as a political issue for 2008. Both Manion and Murphy are powerful voices on the issue, however, and it appears set to take center-stage in their campaign.

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The addition of Manion to the GOP fold gives Republicans a second major veteran candidate with direct ties to Iraq.

State Sen. Steve Stivers, who recently joined the race for retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce’s (R-Ohio) seat, also served there.

Although dozens of Iraq veterans ran for Congress as Democrats in 2006, Murphy was the only one who actually won.

Manion, a retired Marine Corps colonel and pharmaceutical executive, brings a different dynamic to the debate than the veterans in the 2006 Democratic field. His experience more closely aligns with that of former Massachusetts special-election candidate Jim Ogonowski (R), a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who lost his brother on Sept. 11, 2001.

Less than a year removed from the loss of his son, Travis, Manion could help lead the GOP’s effort to take back the issue of Iraq against a candidate who spearheaded it for the new Democratic majority in the 110th Congress.

During his announcement, Manion echoed an emerging GOP talking point on the war: He wants to bring it to an end, but only if it does not imperil U.S. security.

“No one is more committed to that goal than I, because I want no other parents to go through what Janet and I have,” Manion said. “But in doing this, we must confront the threats to our nation’s safety for this and future generations.”

The situation on the ground in Iraq should be key to the result in Pennsylvania’s 8th district as much as anywhere else, said Christopher Borick, director of the Public Opinion Institute at Muhlenberg College.

“I couldn’t find a race in Pennsylvania in 2006 that I could pin the war on more than this one,” Borick said, adding that progress in Iraq could help neutralize Murphy’s major strength. “It just needs to be less of an issue.”

Borick said that early impressions of the relatively unknown Manion are almost universally positive.

But the Bucks County district he will run in has drifted Democratic over the last decade and has been more anti-war than the state as a whole, said Terry Madonna, who runs the Center for Politics and Public Policy at Franklin and Marshall College.

Madonna said his most recent polling shows the economy overtaking Iraq as an issue in the state. But even on that issue, Murphy was one of only 12 Democrats to vote with Republicans against a fiscal-year 2008 budget resolution that could have offended what remains a fiscally conservative district.

“I don’t know what serious chink in the armor exists,” Madonna said.

Manion faces a Republican opponent in businessman Jeff Madden but has secured the endorsement of former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and appears to have the inside track on the GOP nomination.

Fitzpatrick, who lost to Murphy by less than 1 percent in 2006, announced Monday that he will not run again.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) said Manion provides good contrast to Murphy, whom they have cast as beholden to anti-war interests like MoveOn.org.

“This year, voters will be presented with an opportunity to support an individual like Lt. Col. Manion, who is committed to keeping taxes low [and] spending in check, and who values and listens to the expert opinions of our military commanders on the ground like Gen. [David] Petraeus,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said. “The choice in this election could not be any clearer.”

Still, Manion is relatively late to the game and will have less than a year to fundraise for the Philadelphia media market, which is among the most expensive in the nation. By contrast, Murphy will file his year-end report with about $1.7 million raised in 2007.

Murphy spokesman Adam Abrams declined to comment specifically on Manion, but said the congressman “is focused on bringing people together — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — for common-sense, bipartisan solutions.”

“There will be plenty of time to talk about the election as it gets closer,” he added.

Carrie James, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said: “Republicans will have a hard time convincing Pennsylvania families that Patrick Murphy is anything other than a hardworking and effective advocate for the 8th district.”

Manion is not the first candidate running who lost a family member in Iraq.

Republican Kirk Morris (R), who lost his son there in 2004, faces an uphill primary battle against a candidate supported by the national party in Rep. Melissa Bean’s (D-Ill.) district. And national anti-war figure Cindy Sheehan, who also lost her son in 2004, is running an independent bid against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to protest Pelosi’s unwillingness to impeach President Bush.