It's just 10 days before the midterm elections, and one of the most closely watched races in the country is neatly summarized by its incumbent, Congressman Patrick Murphy.
"Two Irish Catholic guys in an Irish donnybrook here in Bucks County, Pa.," he calls it.
Murphy was elected to represent Pennsylvania’s 8th District in Bucks County in 2006, when the prevailing issue was the war in Iraq. Murphy served two tours there with the 82nd Airborne, came back opposed to the war, and defeated Republican Representative Mike Fitzpatrick by about 1,500 votes.
They're running against each other again this year. But now the U.S. commitment in Iraq is winding down while U.S. forces widen the war in Afghanistan. But the overwhelming political issue is joblessness. Unemployment in the district stands at 8 percent.
Out Of Work But Still In Support
At Miller's Ale House in Langhorne, in the southern, largely Democratic slice of the 8th, Murphy shares a bucket of beer and watches the Phillies playoff game with Danny Ever, Richard Donovan, Jim McMahon and Steve Feldman — all members of Local 269 of the electricians union.
"How many of these guys are out of work?" Donovan nods toward each man at the table as he speaks. "Outta work, outta work, outta work, outta work." He turns to Murphy. "Well you know what? We still support you, because we know you're with us."
"You're gonna put us back to work," Ever chimes in. "If Fitzpatrick gets in, I might as well look at being out of work like this — gonna be a long, long time. A long time."
In his campaign office, Murphy stays on message. "It's jobs, jobs jobs. People are hurting out there, and I want to make sure our country continues to move in the right direction."
"People in Bucks County and the 8th Congressional District, they get it — that we cannot go back to the failed Bush-Fitzpatrick economic policies that ran this country into a ditch to begin with. We need to move this country forward, and that's what I've been trying to do."
As for the people who say things have only gotten worse in Murphy's time in office?
"Well, in my case they understand that the person complaining about unemployment ran this country into a ditch to begin with," Murphy says, still lumping Bush and Fitzpatrick together. "It's like an arsonist complaining about the fire department's response time."
Encouraging Business To Make More Jobs
Huge cement mixers unload at Silvi Concrete in Fairless Hills, where a tent in the parking lot houses a luncheon fundraiser for the congressman's opponent. The marquee speaker is the governor of neighboring New Jersey, Chris Christie, who's lending his fame as a budget cutter to Mike Fitzpatrick.
"He will stand against crazy spending, out-of-control-debt and even higher taxes," says Christie as he stumps for Fitzpatrick. "He will say no to those things — not because he wants to say no, but because he's right for saying no."
Fitzpatrick believes that current Democratic policies have increased government regulations and red tape, which has discouraged people from spending and businesses from hiring.
"We need to create and encourage consumer confidence, which will occur when people are going back to work and earning paychecks," he says. "Which will occur when small businesses start investing in their businesses and hiring people."
It's a difference in philosophy, he says. "The incumbent Congressman Patrick Murphy believes through massive federal government spending and programs like the stimulus bill, that we can somehow take federal dollars and create work. In my experience, in my estimation, those jobs are generally not permanent jobs."
Fitzpatrick wants a government that spends less and taxes less. One "that encourages an organization like Silvi Co. ... to invest through the purchase of more trucks, more equipment and supplies, hire more people."
As he sees it, "more people working in the economy means more people paying payroll taxes, which means more money back to the federal government. So it's a pro-growth economic philosophy that I prefer, which is much different than the philosophy of the current incumbent."
Republicans enjoy a slight traditional edge in voter registration in the 8th District, but in recent years, Democrats like Murphy have run well by campaigning on national issues, like their opposition to the war in Iraq and support for Barack Obama.
But G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center of Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, says anxieties about the economy and unemployment are local and personal, which could pull 8th District voters back and forth across party lines.
"It's a swing district," Madonna says. "It has a lot of independent voters. It's voted Democratic in recent years. But Rep. Murphy, I think, is only the third Democrat to represent that district since 1911. So if the Democrats can't win Bucks County, my sense is that it is going to augur for a good night on election night for Republicans."
One Thing's Certain: The 8th District Is Fed Up
The northern part of the 8th District is rolling, leafy and often postcard-quaint. Carol Ansabino and a friend are taking a morning walk over the Delaware River bridge into New Hope as a wedge of geese flap south.
"I feel that we need a big change and I think that, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, for the most part, those that have been in power for a long time and have forgotten why they are there, need to go," Ansabino says.
"Frankly, anyone who has signed on to as much as Patrick Murphy has with the present administration, I think has got to go. I'll be happy to see him go."
Across town, Jeff Smith has breakfast at the counter of the Eagle Diner with friends; they read the paper and check their lottery tickets.
Smith is retired and sounds as if he wants to retire a few politicians on Nov. 2. He and his friends say it's irritating to hear Democrats still running against the previous administration, not their own record.
"President Bush is out," he says. "It's time we stop looking backward and go forward. You know, it's been a couple years now ... Let's go forward and fix what's broken. I mean, the Tea Party has the right idea, I think. ... I think there's going to be a lot of changes in the next couple of weeks."
Chris Bollenbacher, who owns Fred's Breakfast — a breakfast club named for his old Bernese mountain dog — isn't so much about throwing the bums out. He seems to believe that running for and serving in office seals politicians under a kind of bubble in which the air they breathe clouds their vision and distorts their judgment.
He says he was a Republican for years, then became a Democrat. Now, he's mostly fed up.
"We should go to Nebraska and get 70 guys that have a lot of callouses on their hands and have been working their whole lives for everything they have and draft them — put them in the White House and tell them, 'You're now in charge of the country.' "
Bollenbacher's lost confidence in politicians. "I have no confidence in any of them right now. I'm sick of them all." From health care, cap and trade, "the money that Bush spent, the money that Obama is continuing to spend," he wishes there were some other option.
"I wish there was an 'Out' button. I could just vote 'Out' and get rid of them," he says. Without that option, he's not sure yet how he'll vote.
"I'm going to look for people with some character, if I can find them," he says. "I'll vote for them — whoever they are."
The latest polls out of Bucks County in Pennsylvania's 8th District shows Patrick Murphy and Mike Fitzgerald essentially tied, just 10 days before the election, and with perhaps control of the House of Representatives in the balance.