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A Race to Watch

The results of an upcoming special election in a heavily blue Massachusetts district will be telling.

Since winning their majority status in November, Democratic leaders in Congress have been struggling to find the right approach to opposing the war in Iraq. A vocal segment of their party wants out of Iraq yesterday. A less vocal segment worries that a precipitous withdrawal could turn Iraq into an even greater menace than it was before the U.S. invasion.

Complicating matters is the inconvenient truth that the Democratic leaders don't have enough votes in Congress to force an end to the war. Nevertheless, some Democratic strategists say that the best way to win more votes is to keep up the drumbeat on the war. Others worry that the party will have few accomplishments at the end of this Congress if it doesn't move on to other issues.

Calibrating the right approach is as much an art as a science. Congress has seen its collective job-approval ratings plummet to a record low in the teens, and the approval ratings for "Democrats in Congress" are scarcely higher than those for "Republicans in Congress." A just-released ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 35 percent of Americans thought that the Democrats in Congress had gone too far in their opposition to the war, but 55 percent of respondents felt that Democrats hadn't gone far enough.

Against this backdrop is an October 16 special election in the 5th Congressional District of Massachusetts to succeed Rep. Martin Meehan, who left in July to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts (Lowell). The contest in this heavily blue district pits Democrat Niki Tsongas, the widow of former 5th District Rep. and U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas, against Jim Ogonowski, brother of John Ogonowski, who piloted one of the planes that was hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Tsongas, 61, who won the Democratic primary with a 36 percent plurality, has served as dean of external affairs at Middlesex Community College for the past 10 years. Ogonowski, 49, who was the near-unanimous choice in a sparsely contested GOP primary, served for 28 years in the Air Force and Air National Guard.

Under any normal circumstances, a congressional race in this district would be a gimme for Democrats, but party strategists do not dispute that the race is closer than one might expect. Former President Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were recently dispatched to the state to rally support for Tsongas.

One Democratic pollster, Massachusetts native Brad Bannon, suggests that Democratic voters in the district might be in a surly mood because of their party's inability to bring a conclusion to the war.

"More than anything else," Bannon argues, "voters elected the new Democratic congressional majority to end the war. To protect their majority, congressional Democrats will need to bite the bullet and take a hard line to get American combat troops out of Iraq."

Bannon believes that some anti-war voters might stay home on Election Day 2008 or vote for anti-war independent candidates. In this regard, he thinks the 5th District race could be a harbinger of problems ahead for the Democrats.

This special election might be close for other reasons. For years, Massachusetts voters have endured numerous controversies involving politically active college and university officials who have turned higher-education posts into patronage plums. As Tsongas seeks to follow in the footsteps of an outgoing House member who left to become chancellor of the district's largest university, she must be wary of the perception of a revolving door between higher education and public office in the Bay State.

In this kind of political climate, Ogonowski has been smart to run as the political outsider and paint his campaign as a David-versus-Goliath struggle. His ads do not mention his party affiliation but instead declare, "Congress is broken," and portray him as the candidate willing to bring change to Washington.

Although Ogonowski still faces a decidedly uphill battle, the national GOP would probably be thrilled with anything less than a double-digit victory for Tsongas. Such a result, they might argue, would lend credence to the theory that come 2008, voters will be willing to take their anger out on Democrats too.