updated 9/28/2006 7:03:15 AM ET 2006-09-28T11:03:15

Sex could be the undoing of a family values Republican.

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Four-term Rep. Don Sherwood recently had one of the safest seats in Congress as his conservatism played well in his heavily GOP, rural district in northeastern Pennsylvania. Democrats didn't even bother fielding a candidate in the last two elections.

Then last year Sherwood admitted to a five-year extramarital affair with a woman 35 years his junior. He settled a lawsuit claiming he had choked her.

Constituents were stunned. Many turned angry. And some may be turning to his Democratic opponent.

Sherwood won the GOP primary with only 56 percent of the vote even though he faced a political novice who spent less than $5,000 on her campaign.

"I made a mistake that hurt my family and has disappointed some of my constituents," Sherwood said in an interview. "Their disappointment is understandable and I've apologized, and I'm working hard to win them back."

That could be a tall order. Frances Pohonche, 81, a retired bridal dressmaker from Center Moreland, said she always voted for Sherwood but won't again. "I just don't like the man," she said. "He cheated on his wife."

Sherwood, 65, has owned a successful Chevrolet dealership since 1967 and spent 22 years on the school board before running for Congress in 1998.

2 tough races
He won two tough races against Patrick Casey, son of late Democratic Gov. Robert Casey, before his district was reconfigured after the 2000 Census to make it safer for Republicans. Now Republican voters outnumber Democrats by 55,000; lacking a Democratic challenger in 2004, he collected 93 percent of the vote.

The first sign of trouble for Sherwood came in May 2005, when media outlets began reporting that police had investigated an alleged altercation between Sherwood and his mistress, Cynthia Ore, in September 2004. Although criminal charges were never filed, Ore filed a lawsuit against Sherwood, claiming he had choked her while giving her a back rub at his Capitol Hill apartment.

Sherwood denied abusing Ore, but he admitted to an affair with her, apologizing for the "pain and embarrassment" he caused his family and supporters. The married father of three reached a confidential settlement with Ore last November, hoping to put the affair behind him.

His Democratic opponent, former Pentagon intelligence analyst Chris Carney, alludes to Sherwood's personal conduct in a television ad.

"Don Sherwood is not representing the values of this district," Carney, a political science professor at Penn State's Worthington Scranton campus, says in the commercial. "Mr. Sherwood went to Washington and he didn't remember the values he took with him. ... Send me to Congress and I'll make you proud."

In another spot, Carney says, "What we have in Washington are people who don't accept responsibility for their actions."

Bringing home the dollars
There are ways to make Sherwood's personal problems a campaign issue without hammering voters with it, said Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre.

"People don't want to be bludgeoned with that information. They know he had an affair," Baldino said. Carney, he said, also must find an issue that will "differentiate him from Sherwood in a way that will pull Republicans away."

Though many voters say Sherwood has betrayed their trust, others are more forgiving if not pragmatic. They prefer to focus on his ability to bring federal dollars to the district as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"What they do in their personal lives is their business. I don't want to know," said Lois Van Horn, a Sherwood supporter and the owner of the 162-year-old Prince Hotel in Tunkhannock, Sherwood's hometown.

Underscoring the competitiveness of the race, national Republicans and Democrats are spending money on the contest.

Sherwood, who underwent preventive heart surgery last month, said voters might flirt with Carney, an anti-abortion Democrat, but will ultimately decide to go with his experience and conservative brand of politics.

"I think the voters will find there's a big difference in philosophy between Chris Carney and Don Sherwood, and I think they will understand that Mr. Carney is far more liberal than they are or believe we should be," Sherwood said.

Carney, a 47-year-old married father of five, said Sherwood is ripe for defeat, given voters' pessimism about the direction of the nation and President Bush's sagging poll numbers.

"It's a perfect storm of issues," he said, "not just Sherwood's personal issues."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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