updated 10/17/2006 3:20:54 PM ET 2006-10-17T19:20:54

It's a congressional race that typically wouldn't get much attention: A Democratic political novice taking on an 11-term incumbent in a heavily Republican district.

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But what a difference a vowel can make.

The sitting congressman is Saxton; his challenger is Sexton. The similarity of their surnames is making for some unusual claims and unusual publicity.

National exposure
The Democrat, Rich Sexton, insists he doesn't want his name to be a campaign issue in his quest to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, though it has helped him gain national attention.

In September, Sexton appeared on "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central, where satarist-host Stephen Colbert kept calling him "Congressman Saxton" and forcing the challenger to correct him. It was a rare appearance for a challenger on a segment that normally features a member of Congress.

Playing a name game?
Republicans say Democrats are playing a name game by backing a challenger whose surname is only one vowel away from the incumbent's, hoping to pick up support from confused voters. Sexton denies the charge. 2006 key races

"The guy (Saxton) has been in Congress 22 years and he thinks people are going to forget his name?" Sexton asked. "It's not about 'e' and 'a,' it's about 'D' and 'R.'"

The incumbent, who's held office since 1984, winning 11 straight elections - most of them routs - is not taking any chances. Saxton's motto on yard signs and bumper stickers this year is: "Jim Saxton gets and 'A'." And the second letter of his last name appears on his logo big and bright red.

"It certainly is quite a coincidence that they would pick a guy with a name that is so close to mine," Saxton said.

More than a letter at issue
Sexton says he does not think voters in the district, which stretches from Philadelphia suburbs in Camden and Burlington counties to the shore in Ocean County, will be confused.

Apart from the name issue, candidates are using the same tactics as Republicans and Democrats in congressional elections across the country.

Saxton, who has a huge lead in fundraising, acknowledged it's been tough lately to be a GOP incumbent, in part because of a scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who sent overly friendly e-mails and sexually explicit instant messages to former male pages.

"The perception of what's happening in Iraq is not helpful," either, he said.

Politics of Iraq
Sexton, a lawyer and former Naval officer, said he's running largely because he's upset about Iraq and Saxton's support for it. He also said he was not recruited to run by party higher-ups for his name or any other reason.

"He keeps bragging about how many times he's been to Iraq," Sexton said. "He comes back and says, 'Everything's fine. Stay the course.' I didn't see that as a satisfactory solution."

Saxton has been emphasizing other issues, such as how he helped keep three big New Jersey military installations off the chopping block in the latest round of base closings, a shrinking national unemployment rate and his endorsements from environmental groups.

He says that the war in Iraq is important to combat terror, even if it's unpopular.

"The Democrats by definition must be dismissing this as a threat. It is a very unfortunate thing that they have chosen to make this a campaign issue," he said.

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

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