By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/19/2006 8:23:11 AM ET 2006-09-19T12:23:11

NEW LONDON, Conn. — Everyone wants to know: will the Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 7 elections?

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The only way to answer that question is to report on specific House races, and especially on the 18 Republican members who represent districts which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried in 2004

One of those Kerry/GOP districts is here in New London, Conn. where three-term Republican Rep. Rob Simmons is fighting to hold on to his seat against a challenge from Democrat Joe Courtney.

There’s a big difference between Courtney and a half dozen other Democratic House challengers I’ve interviewed this year. Unlike Democratic rookies who’ve never run for office before, such as Kirsten Gillibrand in New York’s 20th congressional district, Courtney is sure-footed, aggressive and confident.

Returning challenger
He has run against Simmons before (losing to him in 2002) and is a veteran former state legislator.

He seems comfortable challenging a reporter’s questions, saying with exasperation at one point “Oh, come on!” to a question he didn’t like about former ambassador Joe Wilson and Dick Cheney ex-aide Lewis Libby. Anti-war critic Wilson, who claimed that the Bush administration punished him by revealing his wife’s CIA employment, campaigned in the district for Courtney.

Former State Department official Richard Armitage, a skeptic about the Iraq war, has recently revealed that it was he, and not White House officials, was the one who first leaked the employment of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame.

Running against establishment
The Democrat’s yard signs say “Courtney: Democrat for Change.”

His pitch to voters is just that simple – change course, throw out Simmons and the GOP House.

Yet in the rivals’ televised one-hour debate Monday night in New London, Courtney was much clearer about removing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from the Pentagon than he was about getting American soldiers out of Iraq.

He contended that removing Rumsfeld from his post would result in a substantive change of Iraq policy, despite President Bush having recently pledged, “We're not leaving (Iraq), so long as I'm the President.”

Iraq factor
He did not support a cutoff of funding for the Iraq deployment, even as Simmons seemed to try to goad him by saying, “If you were running for president, you might have some chance of changing that presidential policy, but in Congress the tools that we have to change the policy are cutting funding for the troops. I hope you’re not suggesting a policy change that we would not support our troops…”

Courtney shot back that he wasn’t talking about cutting funding for U.S. troops.

Praising a proposal by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. for three autonomous regions for Iraq and an exit of U.S. troops by the end of 2007, Courtney said Biden is “not just talking about a targeted date for withdrawal… Americans have some responsibility… to make sure the violence is going to stop and we’re going to leave a somewhat stable situation behind.”

A few minutes later he added another assurance: “No one is talking about walking out and leaving the situation in an irresponsible way.”

War weariness
But Simmons, a Vietnam veteran and a former CIA agent, also sounded defensive about his support for the war and unhappy that more U.S. troops have not yet been ordered home.

Recalling the invasion of Iraq in 2002, Simmons said, “Quite frankly, back in 2002, I was skeptical that was the right thing to do…. War was not my first choice then.”

He said, “We must make it clear to the governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan that our commitment is conditional on their success and our days in their country are numbered.”

Simmons said his question to the president was, “When we see do our forces stand down?”

He said, “I believe we’re close to that point.”

War weariness there certainly is in this district. As Simmons walked in a parade in the town of Somers on Saturday, he went to the side of the road to chat with Wally Gill, who he had met at the funeral last week of Marine Lance Cpl. Philip Johnson, a native of Enfield, Conn., who was killed in Iraq. 

Voter frustration
Gill is a friend of Johnson’s father. “I still can’t stop thinking about it,” a visibly distressed Gill told Simmons. “I think it’s time we probably do get out of there.”

But Gill, a Republican, said he respects Simmons and will vote for him, despite the war.

Some political observers who live in the district detect voter frustration that will sink Simmons, while others don’t

“As I go to meetings, I don’t just see young people who are upset, I see older people upset,” said Bob Schmidt, a teacher and a member of the Democratic town committee in Somers. “The war in Iraq is a big issue people are very upset with and the price of energy is a huge issue in this state. I pre-buy my home heating oil $2000 I had to put, up front, to buy 800 gallons of oil.” Will that take him through the winter? “I hope so,” he said.

Presidential disenchantment
But Cathy Cook, a Republican state senator from Groton, said, “I’m not seeing that kind of anger and frustration, particularly when I go out (campaigning) with the governor (popular GOP incumbent Jodi Rell). People are concerned; a lot of them don’t like the president, but they are not willing to go hard left. They just don’t want to go that way.”

But do voters here want to continue to go Bush’s way? It’s no accident that Courtney constantly links Simmons with Bush. Courtney lambastes Simmons for voting in support of Bush 69 percent of the time in 2005.

Simmons did break with Bush on high-visibility issues such as a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, both of which Bush wanted and Simmons opposed.

Courtney attacks Simmons for voting for the 2005 energy bill, which allows the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not state agencies, to approve construction of facilities that process liquefied natural gas. This will allow a LNG site off Connecticut that will be environmentally risky, Courtney charged.

“It’s George Bush’s energy policy and that’s unacceptable for the people of this district.” He said Simmons “is dependent on energy companies and oil companies to prop up his campaign.”

Running on the record
Simmons replied to Courtney’s call for a change: “I deliver the goods to my constituents. For the next two years, whether the Democrats like it or not, President George Bush is going to be the president. It’s going to be a Republican administration that I can work with to the deliver the goods.”

He said of Courtney, “If he runs a campaign of bashing the Bush administration, which he is, then the Bush administration for the next two years is going to give him nothing, nothing”

Referring to a House-Senate conference committee’s decision last week to authorize $400 million for building two attack subs a year at the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn. Simmons said, “We run the risk of losing our two submarines a year” if Courtney wins.

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