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Democrats Hope to Put Dent in Congressman’s Career

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — It is an unwelcome distinction, but one he cannot hide from.

In what will be a resurgent year for the Grand Old Party from coast to coast, Rep. Charlie Dent is among just nine Republican incumbents who may be in trouble. That’s according to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has ranked Pennsylvania’s 15th district as one of the few in play this fall.

“I realize that I’m one of their top targets,” Dent said late last week in a makeshift campaign office in the heart of the Christmas City. “But if I’m one of their top targets, they’re in trouble. Seriously. They have problems.”

Dent may have cause for optimism.

He enjoys the traditional advantages of incumbency — a national fundraising network and high name recognition, among others. But the three-term Congressman is facing someone the Democratic establishment believes is a budding star — Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, a fresh-faced and well-funded 40-year-old former businessman.

He is a self-proclaimed “practical, centrist, pro-business Democrat.” And while that may be a mouthful, moderation plays well in this Lehigh Valley district.

This is a working-class region that has come back to life since the closure of Bethlehem Steel, once the nation’s second-largest steel producer, just 15 years ago. It is a place President Barack Obama carried by 13 points in 2008, and where both John Kerry and Al Gore eked out 1-point victories.

And it is a place where Dent, an acknowledged centrist, declines to list his party affiliation on much of his campaign literature.

“Charlie Dent: an independent leader” is the slogan that graces bumper stickers and buttons.

“Around here, people don’t pay as much attention to party labels,” he said. “They care more about where you stand on the issues than party affiliations, believe it or not. I’m their representative to Washington. I’m not Washington’s representative to them.”

Such is the challenge for Dent, an incumbent who must fight to redefine his Congressional service in an election cycle where incumbency has become a liability.

It’s a struggle Democrats know well.

High Dollars, High Stakes

It was not Obama, but the more popular President Bill Clinton who traveled to Allentown last Tuesday to stump for Callahan.

Joe Mitlyng was there.

The 68-year-old retired health care administrator almost seemed ashamed to admit that he paid just $125 to attend the gathering in a local lawyer’s backyard.

“I must have gotten a discount,” he says sheepishly, standing among about 75 Callahan supporters who have gathered Saturday afternoon at Upper Macungie Park to share hamburgers and cupcakes with the mayor.

The discounted ticket price, however, works with Callahan’s stump speech at this outdoor picnic on the edge of Route 100.

It’s common knowledge among these Democrats that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) visited with about 150 Republican donors the night before at the brick estate of a local doctor. The minimum ticket price was $500 per person, although those who wished to have their picture taken with Boehner paid at least $1,000.

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