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Battle for Congress now set to move from courts to the ballot box

| Tuesday, April 30, 2002

PHILADELPHIA - In the political off-season, Pennsylvania Republicans have managed to turn a razor-thin majority in the state Legislature into a political home run: a redistricting map they predict will give the GOP 14 of the state's 19 congressional seats.

Now, after a lengthy legal battle over that blueprint's fairness, the candidates are poised to take the battle for the U.S. House from the courts to the ballot box.

This year's primaries, set for May 21, will feature a rare spectacle - two incumbents going head to head for their political survival.

Pennsylvania's relatively slow population growth means it will lose two seats in Congress in 2003, and the GOP-engineered map to realign the districts has pitted Rep. Frank Mascara and Rep. John Murtha, both Democrats, head to head in western Pennsylvania's 12th District.

Murtha, 69, is seen as having an edge.

Elected in 1974, he is a senior Democrat on the House's powerful appropriations and defense committees. Mascara has been in office since 1995.

A recent poll by the Tribune-Review of Greensburg showed Murtha with a lead. The candidates share nearly equal halves of the new district. About 47 percent comes from Mascara's old territory, 43 percent from Murtha's.

The winner will face Republican Bill Choby, a dentist whom Murtha beat 71 percent to 28 percent in 2000.

The changes in the upcoming election will leave the Democrats with three of their 10 incumbents gone before a single vote has been cast. Republicans currently enjoy an 11-10 edge.

''There is no way to get around it, there is going to be a decimation of the Democrats here,'' said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University.

Democrats will get a pair of shots at winning back those seats in two new congressional districts without an incumbent.

In the newly created 18th District, Democrats Bob Domske, Jack Macheck and Larry Maggi will run for the right to face Republican state Sen. Tim Murphy.

Murphy is the favorite in the general election, but might face a threat if Maggi, Washington County's sheriff and a state police trooper for 24 years, wins in the Democratic primary. Macheck, a tax collector, had an unsuccessful campaign in 2000. Domske, a farmer, also garnered little support in 2000.

In the other race with no incumbent, Democrats Dan Wofford and environmental lawyer Frank Thomas will battle in the 6th for the right to face Republican state Sen. Jim Gerlach in southeast Pennsylvania.

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