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Old Divorce File Riles Tennessee

Democrats seem happy to make the race a character debate between DesJarlais, a physician and political newcomer, and the four-term Congressman.

“Tennessee families are going to have to seriously consider Scott DesJarlais’ ability to serve in Congress after this alarming news about his character and values,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Jesse Ferguson said Wednesday.

In such a Republican-friendly environment, Democrats are wary that their somewhat secure hold on the seat could slip away late in the campaign.

The 4th district is socially conservative, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won it by a 30-point margin in the 2008 presidential race. This cycle, Davis has been a relatively weak fundraiser for an incumbent, and GOP strategists say his vote for the controversial stimulus bill has given Republicans a key campaign issue to tie the Congressman to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But Davis has worked hard in his four terms to cultivate the image that he’s a centrist who has stuck to his socially conservative roots. This cycle, the Blue Dog Democrat has earned endorsements from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life.

Davis may also have benefitted from the fact that during the recruiting phase of the cycle, the 4th district was generally viewed to be out of reach for Republicans, especially after a pair of juicy open-seat opportunities opened up in the Volunteer State and became the focus of state and national party leaders.

DesJarlais, who has been in the race since last summer, has never been touted as a top recruit by the national party and even today sits on the lowest rung of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s three-tier candidate recruitment program. But an increasingly favorable political environment has pushed most political pundits to move the 4th district onto the 2010 Congressional playing field.

This week, DesJarlais released an internal campaign poll conducted by the GOP firm Public Opinion Strategies on Aug. 10 and 12 that showed him trailing the Congressman 45 percent to 41 percent. That survey of 300 likely voters with a 5.7-point margin of error was dismissed by Davis’ camp. The Congressman released his own survey of 400 likely voters conducted Aug. 24-26, which showed him ahead 51 percent to 40 percent. The margin of error was 4.9 points.

Although Davis had less than $500,000 on hand as of mid-July, the Congressman’s campaign said it expects to spend $850,000 to $1 million on the race over the next seven weeks. With neither national party committee signaling any desire to devote resources to the race and DesJarlais essentially starting from scratch after his early August primary, $1 million worth of spending would give the Congressman a serious leg up. That is unless one of the many well-funded conservative third-party groups that are playing in Congressional contests this cycle decides to level the financial playing field for DesJarlais.

While the NRCC has yet to devote any financial resources to the district, the party quickly came to DesJarlais’ defense Wednesday.

“Davis’ use of one person’s entirely unproven allegations is dirty, desperate and false,” NRCC spokesman Andy Seré said. “It’s also hypocritical. Let’s just say that when it comes to ‘family values,’ Lincoln is the last person who should be casting stones.”

When asked to elaborate, Seré declined to comment.

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