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Wisconsin Rematch Down to Wire

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For Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen, this election cycle has been a lot like a bad case of déjà vu.

Kagen, who won an open seat in the hotly contested 8th district by 2 points in 2006, is once again facing former state Speaker John Gard (R).

But it’s not only his opponent who is the same.

As in 2006, the polls show the race is very tight, and Kagen and Gard have similar cash-on-hand totals going into the final stretch.

“We always knew it was going to be a close race,” Kagen spokesman Jake Rubin said. “It was a close race in 2006, in a very divided district.”

In the traditionally Republican district, which includes Green Bay and Appleton, Kagen is looking to beat the odds in winning re-election. The 8th district has elected a Democrat for Congress only six times, including Kagen. Only one of those incumbents, former Rep. Robert Cornell, served more than one term.

One big benefit for Kagen going into November has been the on-the-ground support that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has drawn in the district. Obama is leading the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), by more than 10 points, according to recent polls — in a district that President Bush carried by 11 points four years ago. McCain’s announcement that he’s withdrawing some of his ads in Wisconsin could also help Kagen.

So far, much of the campaign rhetoric has followed the national political scene, focusing on energy and the economic crisis. Gard has hit Kagen hard on oil drilling issues and said he would not only oppose the economic bailout bill but would also not vote to raise taxes, as Kagen has. Kagen bucked the Democratic leadership, voting against the economic bailout bill this fall.

“John Gard has been talking about drilling for a while now,” Rubin said. “I think that he is taking his cues from his supporters in Big Oil. Congressman Kagen believes that we cannot drill our way out of this crisis.”

Kagen has been pushing for a three-pronged approach to energy issues: drilling in the United States, focusing on alternative-energy sources and getting rid of price manipulation.

But Gard spokesman Mark Graul said that Kagen “voted eight times to continue bans on American oil drilling. John Gard would have voted differently.”

Despite the political tit for tat, state political watchers say the race has been more dominated by the personalities of the candidates than the issues.

“Their personalities are passionate,” said Gary Goyke, a state lobbyist who represents environmental and nonprofit groups. “They bring different perspectives on issues.”

Gard, who was elected to the state Assembly at age 24, is well-known for sticking to his convictions and doesn’t shy away from a fight. As Speaker, he was credited with victories such as shepherding a welfare reform package. He also made enemies, regularly sparring with union officials.

Kagen is also known for his political prowess. An allergist, Kagen has pledged to not take the Congressional health care benefits until the same coverage is available for his constituents. He’s also been credited for helping mitigate the damage of two paper mill plants closing his district.

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