I don't envy the voters of Bucks County, Northeast Philadelphia, and a small part of eastern Montgomery County.
Residents who compose Pennsylvania's Eighth Congressional District are going to cast ballots in 2008 that will likely require a particularly grueling political calculus: weighing the impact of a young Marine's tragic passing in service to our country. No wonder this race - less than one week old - is already shaping up to be one of the most competitive, high-profile contests in the nation.
When Republican Thomas Manion, who is expected to win his party's nomination, announced his candidacy against Democratic incumbent Patrick Murphy last week, he was afforded one-third of a page treatment in USA Today. Unfortunately, that coverage resulted not from Manion's standing as a retired Marine colonel or pharmaceutical executive, but because he is the father of Marine First Lt. Travis Manion. Travis, a graduate of La Salle College High School and the U.S. Naval Academy, was killed in Fallujah on April 29 of last year.
Murphy is a freshman member of the House and the only member of Congress to have served in Iraq, meaning he will defend his seat by running against the father of a fallen brother-in-arms. Given the history of the district, this election would already have been targeted by both parties even without this emotional pull.
In 2006, Murphy defeated incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick by just 1,500 votes. Before then, Republicans and Democrats had traded holds on the congressional seat. Democrat Peter Kostmayer represented this area from 1977 to 1981. Next came Republican James Coyne. Kostmayer repeated from 1983 through 1993, after which came Republicans Jim Greenwood and Mike Fitzpatrick. Despite a long-standing Republican registration edge, Al Gore won the district in 2000, as did John Kerry in 2004.
Although I no longer reside there, I was born and raised in Bucks County, have been a part of its political scene, and have closely followed its political events for 30 years. I met the Manion family in the worst of circumstances last May. What was supposed to be one of Doylestown's "First Friday" events, a monthly occasion promoting local merchants in the center of the Rockwellian community, instead became a memorial in honor of Travis Manion - and for Army First Lt. Colby Umbrell, another Doylestown resident, killed in Iraq four days after him.
My heart broke that night for Tom Manion, his wife, Janet, their daughter, Ryan Manion-Borek, and her husband, David Borek. There was an enormous outpouring of support from the community for the grieving family. To meet them is to know they are good people.
Tom Manion is a patriot who believes deeply in the Iraq mission. He penned an opinion piece for this page on the sixth anniversary of 9/11.
Then there is Murphy. Next month, he will publish a book titled Taking the Hill about his odyssey from Iraq to Washington. On the book jacket there will be promotional blurbs from Barack Obama and John Kerry.
While we come from separate political parties, I like Patrick Murphy. He's earnest and unpretentious. I respect the fact that, like the Manions, he has worn the uniform of his country. And I find I am closer to his view of Iraq than to that of Manion.
I don't know much about Tom Manion's opinions beyond Iraq, or his qualifications for office. He certainly seems decent and has an air of competence. But I suspect that absent the passing of his son, he would not have volunteered to run for Congress. Which leads me to why I don't relish such a battle.
I don't know how a voter could walk into the booth, close the curtain, and not think about the passing of Travis Manion. I know my heart would demand that, even if my head thought it irrelevant. Please don't misunderstand: I know Tom Manion would never seek to exploit his son's passing. Still, the fact that his son has passed will be present, and I'm not sure how a voter should evaluate that tragedy.
I don't like the thought of seeing either of these two men lose, mostly Manion. Murphy, at 34 years old, has a promising future regardless of the outcome of this election. Manion has proved his class outside the political arena by his gentlemanly bearing in facing the harshest of blows. I'd hate to see his sorrow expand, though I'm sure he'd be the first to tell me not to let sympathy enter the equation.
Nonetheless, when this expected race is over, either a good young public servant who himself is a veteran will lose, or a fellow patriot who already lost a son will suffer again.
Which is why no matter who runs against my congressman, Jim Gerlach, next November, I will be relieved to cast my ballot in Montgomery County, and not in Bucks.
Follow Michael Smerconish on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@smerconish