ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
It's been a long time since a Republican was elected to Congress from Massachusetts. In the 5th Congressional District, it's been over 30 years. And by all accounts, Niki Tsongas, the wife of the late Senator Paul Tsongas, should hold the seat for the Democrats in a special election this coming Tuesday. But the GOP is hoping to pull off a surprise with its candidate, Jim Ogonowski.
From member station WBUR in Boston, Fred Thys reports.
FRED THYS: In front of an audience of about 2,000 people in Lowell, the district's largest city, former President Bill Clinton recently tried to make this election about the Republicans' handling of the war in Iraq.
BILL CLINTON: We're being told, okay, Iraq's a mess. We made it, but you can't set a date to - in our military involvement or the mess we made will get worse. So you have to leave us in because of the mess we made. Ain't that about their argument?
THYS: The democratic candidate is Niki Tsongas, widow of Clinton's rival in the 1992 presidential race, Paul Tsongas, who once held the seat. Much of her candidacy is based on her opposition to the war.
NIKI TSONGAS: Bill Clinton and I agree that we need to bring our soldiers home from Iraq.
THYS: Clinton raised $150,000 for Tsongas. A week before, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had raised $75,000 for her. In all, Tsongas has raised more than $1.8 million.
JIM OGONOWSKI: Hey, just tell me where to go.
THYS: Ogonowski, a hay farmer and a brother of an American Airlines pilot killed on 9/11, has raised less than third of the amount of money Tsongas has. As national Democratic figures campaign for Tsongas, Ogonowski says he doesn't want that kind of help from his own party.
OGONOWSKI: She's going to bring in all the heavy-hitters because she can't stand on her own. She needs the Washington insiders like Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi to come and prop her up because, clearly, they're worried that she's not the candidate that can win this seat.
THYS: Ogonowski is presenting himself as the local candidate running against Washington. And while there are no reliable polls to be cited, his active candidacy and the attacks on him by the Tsongas campaign have led some to speculate that this could be a race closer than anyone expected, especially for a district that has been electing only Democrats to Congress for more than three decades. Jeff Gerson is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
JEFF GERSON: It's very exciting that there is a close race. Most people had figured no Republican candidate could possibly win this race or make that strong showing. And Ogonowski, I think, has proved them wrong.
THYS: Recently, Ogonowski has hit on the issue of illegal immigration. It's an issue that seems to be hitting home with the voters like Dot Pratt(ph), who is attending a candidate forum at a senior center in Chelmsford. Asked what issues matter most to her, she says...
DOT PRATT: Oh, there's plenty. But mostly, the immigration. Yeah. I think that that's that one problem, deciding what to do with them.
THYS: The Ogonowski campaign is actually distributing leaflets saying Tsongas and President Bush both support amnesty for illegal immigrants. It may be a stretch to try to link Niki Tsongas to President Bush, but the idea of Republican candidate separating himself from a Republican president is not unusual, especially in a district Mr. Bush lost by 16 points in 2004.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Thys in Boston.
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