In Pennsylvania, Democrat Kanjorski In Trouble

By all accounts, 2008 is shaping up to be a Democratic year. But some Democratic incumbents such as Pennsylvania Rep. Paul Kanjorski are in trouble. He is running against a popular mayor who has made a reputation for himself for his opposition to illegal immigration.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. With just over three weeks to Election Day, polls suggest Democrats could add to their majorities in both houses of Congress. But a handful of Democratic lawmakers are locked in difficult reelection races. Perhaps none tougher than 12-term House incumbent Paul Kanjorski of northeast Pennsylvania. Polls show him trailing Republican challenger Lou Barletta. As mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Barletta made national headlines when he took a tough stand on illegal immigration. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Looking tanned and fit in a white dress shirt open at the collar, Lou Barletta works the crowd at a campaign stop in Scranton.

U: And without further ado, next congressman Louis Barletta.

NORRIS: Thank you.

ROSE: Barletta launches into a story he's been telling a lot this year. How as the mayor of a small town in Pennsylvania, he passed the nation's toughest law against illegal immigrants.

NORRIS: It was that I stood up for the people of my community that has brought a lot of supporters to follow me, not only here in the district, but statewide and nationally as well.

ROSE: Hazleton's law was struck down by a federal court last summer. It's currently on appeal, but the issue made Barletta into a national celebrity. Wilkes University political scientist Thomas Baldino says it also gave Barletta fantastic name recognition in Pennsylvania's 11th Congressional District.

NORRIS: If a lesser known candidate, someone other than Barletto were running, I don't think Kanjorski would be in this kind of a bind.

ROSE: This isn't how it usually goes for Paul Kanjorski, a socially conservative Democrat, typically sails through reelection in this blue-collar district, as he did against the same Lou Barletta six years ago. But that was then. An independent poll taken in September showed Kanjorski trailing by eight points.

NORRIS: The real issue here is do you want a congressman with experience or do you want to take a back bencher who will be in the minority party?

ROSE: Both campaigns have been going negative since the word go. Television ads attacking Barletta went on the air in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

U: What if they have their way? The politicians like Lou Barletta and George Bush? They wanted to privatize Social Security, putting your retirement at risk.

ROSE: The Barletta camp struck back, attacking Kanjorski for an earmark that directed more than $9 million to a business owned by members of his family. The business later went bankrupt, although Kanjorski was never charged with any wrongdoing. Barletta is also criticizing the incumbent for his role in the $700 billion rescue of Wall Street.

NORRIS: I disagree with it. I would not have voted for that bill and I believe Congressman Kanjorski bailed out his buddies on Wall Street.

ROSE: As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, Kanjorski helped craft the financial package Congress passed earlier this month. Kanjorski says he voted for the plan knowing it wasn't popular in his district.

NORRIS: And I received, you know, thousands of emails and letters and telephone calls, basically saying that, you know, we've voted for you all these years and that we're so disappointed that you're not voting for the people's interest. Well, what they don't realize is that I voted for the people's interest.

ROSE: Kanjorski knows he'll have to keep making that case to his constituents if he's going to return to Washington for a 13th term, especially undecided voters like Jim Sobiaski of Wilkes Barre.

NORRIS: I don't like his family business. The money got through his family business and it bellied up. And I like what's-his-name's stand on immigration.

ROSE: Have you voted for Kanjorski before?

NORRIS: Yes, yes.

ROSE: And now you're thinking maybe not?

NORRIS: Maybe not this time. Time to hang it up, Paul.

ROSE: Lou Barletta needs lots of voters like Sobiaski to cross party lines if he's going to win in a district that leans Democratic. Democrats are expected to pour millions more into defending Paul Kanjorski's seat. The question is whether it will be enough. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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