Philadelphia House Race Turns on Money Issues In a suburban Philadelphia House race, incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach faces an aggressive challenge from Democrat Lois Murphy, who narrowly lost to Gerlach two years ago. Fueled by rising interest rates, falling homes prices and stagnant wages, economic anxiety tops the issue list for both candidates.
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Philadelphia House Race Turns on Money Issues

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Philadelphia House Race Turns on Money Issues

Philadelphia House Race Turns on Money Issues

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The hallmarks of the U.S. economy over the past several years have been strong growth, low unemployment and historically high profits for companies. That would normally help the political party in power, in this case the Republicans. But the war in Iraq, security issues and topics such as gasoline prices make this year anything but normal. We'll take a measure of House races across the country. That's coming up.

But first, NPR's John Ydstie visited suburban Philadelphia and found that economic issues are what matter most.

JOHN YDSTIE: Pennsylvania's sixth congressional district sprawls across three counties north and west of Philadelphia. It's a mix of prosperous green suburbs, wooded rural areas and old line factory towns trying to adapt to the service economy.

Republican Jim Gerlach has eked out victories here during the past two elections, beating Democrat opponents by just a couple of percentage points.

Representative JIM GERLACH (Republican, Pennsylvania): How you doing, Jack? Nice to see you. How you making out?

YDSTIE: On this September day Gerlach is in Pottstown at the Elks Lodge for lunch with the Tri-County Chamber of Commerce. There's no talk about Iraq here and no mention of President Bush. The discussion focuses mainly on local economic development issues and Gerlach's support for a new commuter rail line.

One of those in attendance here, Kevin Johnson, is president of a local transportation planning firm. He says even in the middle of a war, the economy can change votes.

Mr. KEVIN JOHNSON: Economic issues always play a role in any election. I think here in the sixth district it is going to come into play, yes.

YDSTIE: Which one specifically would you say?

Mr. JOHNSON: Taxes. Gasoline prices, obviously, is something always on voters' minds.

YDSTIE: For the most part, says Johnson, a solid economy in the sixth district should help Gerlach, who he supports. Back in his office a couple of days later, Congressman Gerlach agrees.

Representative GERLACH: I think overall it's a plus. I mean, we have a very low unemployment rate in our area. A lot of growth in a lot of different sectors. But with that said, I think there's still an uneasiness among families about increasing costs. Up until recently, gas prices. Now gas prices are coming down and I think that's been very helpful.

Mr. MARK ZANDI (Moodyseconomy.com): Gasoline prices play a big role, an outsized role, in influencing how people think about their own financial wellbeing and how they vote.

YDSTIE: Economist Mark Zandi's office is just outside the sixth district in the town of Westchester. When gas prices were hovering around $3 a gallon it was a clear negative for incumbents like Gerlach, says Zandi of Moodyseconomy.com. He says that appears to be changing.

Mr. ZANDI: If it goes further south, you know, $2 or $2.25 by election day, that may actually help the incumbents out.

YDSTIE: Zandi believes it's largely the trend line that affects a voter's sense of wellbeing because people project that trend into the future. If that's the case, the recent downward trend in housing prices is likely causing some economic unease among Americans. That along with concern about slow wage growth and rising healthcare costs could trump the positive economic news of recent years, he says.

Congressman Gerlach's challenger hopes that's just what will happen.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, how are you?

Ms. LOIS MURPHY (Democrat Congress hopeful, Pennsylvania): Good. I wanted to introduce myself. I'm Lois Murphy.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, Lois. Nice to meet you.

Ms. MURPHY: I'm running for Congress in our area.

YDSTIE: Democrat Lois Murphy lost to Jim Gerlach in the 2004 election 51 to 49 percent. She's challenging him again this year. On this day she's canvassing for votes in the Main Line suburb of Narberth, just went of Philadelphia.

Ms. MURPHY: And I'm running for Congress because I think it's time for a change.

YDSTIE: Economic issues are prominent in Murphy's campaign. She argues the strong economy of the past few years has disproportionately benefited high income Americans. She's betting middle income voters will make their election day decisions on issues that register very clearly for them at the kitchen table.

Ms. MURPHY: I don't think it's subtle when families are facing the cost of college tuition and it's hard to send a child to college. I don't think it's too subtle for families to appreciate what happened with gas prices this summer and how that affected their ability to take a vacation or just to get to work or get to school. We have a lot of smart voters in this district and they understand that the economy is growing, but the growth is not broad enough and not deep enough.

YDSTIE: Sitting on a bench on Narberth's main street, 68-year-old Judy Schwartz, who normally votes Republican says concern about the war in Iraq is making her think twice about voting for Jim Gerlach this year. And she says economic issues may help tip her vote to Murphy.

Ms. JUDY SCHWARTZ: The automakers are laying people off in droves. People need to work. He's just focusing everything on overseas.

YDSTIE: Even though the economy will factor into the voting equation it's difficult to parse who might benefit most, says economist Mark Zandi. The trend in gas prices now seems to be positive for the incumbents. On the other hand, rising healthcare costs may favor the challengers. Net it all out and the economy is close to a draw but may slightly favor the party out of power, the Democrats.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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