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The battlefield widens for House GOP seats

Times Staff Writers

The temperature is dropping, but six-term Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) is sweating more than usual for this time of year.

In his last two campaigns, Gutknecht breezed to reelection with at least 60% of the vote. But when he stopped at an American Legion hall in this small southern Minnesota town Friday, he faced several tough issues, including the House page scandal, North Korea, Iran and the war in Iraq.

“The body count in October [in Iraq] is so high -- how do you feel about an exit strategy?” asked Shan Gruden, a retired teacher who supported Gutknecht in the past but remains undecided today.

Gruden’s challenge to Gutknecht captures the dynamic that is widening the battlefield during the final weeks of the contest for control of the House of Representatives.

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A growing number of GOP incumbents in seats once considered “safe” -- including Melissa A. Hart in Pennsylvania, Ron Lewis in Kentucky, Richard W. Pombo in Tracy, Calif., and Gutknecht here -- are struggling this month against a powerful current of discontent with the nation’s direction, the performance of Congress and President Bush, and the war in Iraq.

Republican seats at risk have nearly tripled since January, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Then, 18 GOP seats were endangered; now, 48 are considered in play.

“The battleground is way broader than anyone thought was possible,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the liberal group MoveOn.org.

To take back the House, which they lost in 1994, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats -- something they could do, perhaps, without capturing any of these newly competitive seats. But Democratic strategists believe that if the party can break into this second tier of Republican-leaning districts, they could greatly increase their odds of building a majority large enough to survive for longer than two years.

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In a measure of the party’s growing optimism, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee plans to announce Tuesday that it will begin airing advertisements in 11 new districts, including eight the party had not considered competitive until recently, party sources say.

Though both sides agree that many of these districts are growing more competitive, in most cases Democrats still face an uphill climb to reach 50%.

“It’s one thing to be close,” said Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University, who is tracking the contest between Lewis and Democrat Mike Weaver. “It’s another to defeat an incumbent.”

At various points this year, for instance, Democrats have been optimistic about upsetting GOP Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave, whose eastern Colorado district Bush carried with nearly 60% of the vote in both 2000 and 2004.

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Her Democratic opponent, state Rep. Angie Paccione, has pressed a spirited challenge, but Musgrave appears to have reestablished an advantage in polls after an advertising barrage from the national GOP that painted Paccione as an “out-of-touch ... liberal.” Paccione says the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has shifted to other races the money it had planned to spend on TV ads on her behalf.

Republican operatives cite that sort of triage as evidence that Democrats lack enough funds to capture many of the GOP-leaning seats that now appear vulnerable.

“In order for them to make any of these races potentially come true, they have to spend money there, and it’s unclear how much money they have left or how much in debt they are willing to go,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Still, in elections characterized by a strong desire for change, such as 1974 and 1994, the current of discontent was powerful enough to sweep in even underfunded challengers. And whatever happens Nov. 7, it is already clear that Democrats have generated intense pressure on many Republicans who have not needed to run full-scale campaigns for years -- and did not expect to do so now.

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Gutknecht appears to have legitimate competition,” said Caledonia Township Chairman Kermit McRae, whose Minnesota town was one of Gutknecht’s stops Friday. “Some years you get token competition, but this year the person is campaigning hard -- and what I see is the congressman is campaigning hard back.”

The race between Lewis and Weaver in Kentucky’s 2nd District, which rolls through rural areas southwest of Louisville, is also more heated than usual. In May 1994, Lewis, a Baptist minister, won the seat in a special election that foreshadowed the GOP landslide six months later.

Since 1994, he has never won less than 58% of the vote. Two years ago, Bush won the district with nearly two-thirds of the vote.

But this year, for the first time in a decade, Lewis is concerned enough that he is airing television ads, and local Republicans are uneasy.

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“We’re going to lose seats, a sure thing,” said Clifford Owen, a Republican farmer from Larue County who said he would continue to vote for Lewis.

Weaver, a 67-year-old Vietnam veteran and state legislator, pounds at the disillusionment in this socially conservative district over the page scandal involving former GOP Rep. Mark Foley.

“It’s time for voters to do their duty,” he said. “The Republican Party claimed they were the party of faith, family values and moral values. Now they have been exposed. It is time for the Democrats to reclaim these values.”

Weaver opposes abortion and supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and he distances himself from the national Democratic Party almost as aggressively as he criticizes his GOP opponent.

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But Lewis is working hard to tie him to liberal Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. “People here certainly don’t want Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House,” Lewis said.

Though Gutknecht’s southeastern Minnesota district isn’t as reliably Republican as the Kentucky seat, he’s also betting on an ideological contrast in his struggle against Democrat Tim Walz, a high school teacher, football coach and 24-year veteran of the Army National Guard. Last week the National Republican Congressional Committee spent about $100,000 on ads accusing Walz of weakness on illegal immigration.

“There are big differences between the two of us,” Gutknecht said. “If that message gets out, then I win this election 55 to 45 [percent] at least.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fired back Friday with an ad criticizing Gutknecht for voting against increases in the minimum wage while accepting pay raises, a common argument in Democratic campaigns this year.

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But Iraq looms as the greatest risk to the incumbent.

In a new ad scheduled to air Tuesday, Walz stands before empty bleachers and says: “When I coached football, these stands held about 3,000 people. That’s a lot. It’s also the number of American soldiers who have died fighting in Iraq.”

His former students now in the military, he says, “deserve a plan for Iraq to govern itself so they can come home.”

Gutknecht, who traveled to Iraq in the summer, said he initially endorsed the war based on imperfect information but believed now that the U.S. must continue the fight.

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“Let’s be honest -- a lot of people, both Republican and Democrat, voted to go in there,” he said. “It may not have been involved with terrorism then, but it is now. It’s like a light that’s attracting all these bugs and moths.”

Gutknecht’s accessibility and candor impressed Gruden, the retired teacher, who came to question him at the American Legion hall here. “He seems approachable,” she said.

But even after his answer, she said, she is still worried about the war and “all the graft, greed and corruption in Washington.” She left for home the same way she had arrived -- uncertain who would win her support.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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Brownstein reported from Washington, Hennessy-Fiske from Minnesota and Jarvie from Kentucky. Times staff writers Stephanie Simon in Denver and Moises Mendoza in Washington contributed to this report.

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Competitive House races

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Democratic strategists think the party can better build a long-term majority if it can break into Republican-leaning districts. Three of the U.S. House races being watched:

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Eight of the districts in play

A newly emerging set of congressional races could help Democrats gain control of the House. Here’s how eight incumbent Republicans in once safe races fared in 2004 and how their vote compared with President Bush’s vote in the district:

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*--* Bush Vote vote First share share Name District elected in ’04 in ’04 Melissa A. Hart PA-4 2000 63% 54% Richard W. Pombo CA-11 1992 61 54 John T. Doolittle CA-4 1990 65 61 Marilyn N. Musgrave CO-4 2002 51 58 Gil Gutknecht MN-1 1994 60 51 Mike Ferguson NJ-7 2000 57 53 Michael G. Fitzpatrick PA-8 2004 55 48 Ron Lewis KY-2 1994 68 65

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Source: Almanac of American Politics. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken

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