With polls tight, a Republican state legislator and Democratic venture capitalist battle daily over the economic stimulus package in congressional race that's seen as a referendum on President Barack Obama's policies and a test of GOP strength.
"What we should have done was go back to the drawing board, get a stimulus package that truly creates jobs, invests in infrastructure and the economy," says Jim Tedisco, a Republican echoing Washington party leaders who almost unanimously opposed the $787 billion package.
Scott Murphy, conversely, stands with Obama and fellow Democrats who control Congress. "The right choice was for the federal government to help us through this crisis with the stimulus. This is the shock absorber that could start to turn the economy around," he says.
Playing out in a sprawling upstate New York district, the first special election of Obama's presidency is a priority for both parties. Money is flowing to the candidates. Party heavyweights are campaigning. Outside groups are involved.
It's not that the race will decide U.S. House power; Democrats have a comfortable majority. It's not that the district is a bellwether; Republicans outnumber Democrats. It's not that the outcome will gauge the public's exact sentiment; turnout is always very low in special elections.
But Democrats and Republicans plan to use the results anyway as a measure of the popularity of Obama's economic efforts. The outcome also will serve as a barometer for the beleaguered GOP and its new national chairman, Michael Steele.
Republicans hope to prove they can win after national defeats in 2006 and 2008. Steele, after a rough start in his new job, wants to quiet critics who doubt he can engineer victories. He has sent party workers to the district, campaigned for Tedisco and poured in $200,000. The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $343,000, including $329,000 for advertising opposing Murphy.
With foreclosures, unemployment and fears running high, voters clearly are divided over the stimulus.
"I'm not sure it was the right move. Who's going to pay for it in the long run?" wondered Susan Inglee, 49, a bus driver from Queensbury.
Countered Bill Pomeroy, 81, a retiree from Clifton Park, who has watched his investments evaporate: "It was the right thing to do but it's been done much too quickly."
Right or wrong, "I hope it helps," said Jessica Painter, 31, of Cohoes, who lost her job last fall at a title insurance company.
A district divided
Traditionally conservative, New York's 20th Congressional District cuts across the Hudson Valley, the Catskills and the Adirondacks. It is heavily white, rural, and middle class, and had been in GOP hands for decades; George W. Bush comfortably won it twice.
Then moderate Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand upset scandal-tainted U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., in 2006 as part of a nationwide wave that swept Republicans from power in the U.S. House.
Since then, the district has tilted slightly more Democratic. Gillibrand won re-election in 2008, and Obama narrowly carried the district. Still, Republicans have a voter registration edge of 70,000.
The seat became vacant when Gov. David Paterson appointed Gillibrand to serve the remainder of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's U.S. Senate term.
Republicans turned to Tedisco, the top Republican in the Assembly who has been in Albany for more than 25 years. At 58, Tedisco is a picture of state capital politics, with gray-streaked hair, dark business suits and tasseled loafers.
A former educator raised in the area, Tedisco has name recognition on his side. But he has taken heat because he lives just outside the district. He emphasizes roots and experience.
Democrats tapped the 39-year-old Murphy, who is tall and has strawberry blond hair. A Harvard graduate who moved his family from Missouri three years ago to be closer to his in-laws, Murphy was an aide to two Democratic governors and founded Internet businesses. Now a managing director for Advantage Capital Partners, he calls himself a fiscal conservative. He claims job-creation skills and casts himself as a fresh-faced leader like Obama.
The stimulus debate
Republicans have criticized Murphy's involvement in an Indian version of eBay, tax warrants on a former company and lobbying in Missouri.
But the stimulus measure has dwarfed those issues.
The Democratic-led Congress was debating the bill as the race began in February, when Tedisco led in polls by double digits and was favored.
As the legislation went to Obama's desk, Murphy said he would have voted for it. But Tedisco repeatedly refused to take a hard position.
Aided by newspaper editorials accusing Tedisco of stonewalling, Murphy spent a month challenging the Republican to say how he would have voted. Tedisco, in turn, assailed Murphy for "knee-jerk" support of the voluminous measure.
The criticism took a toll on Tedisco. The latest public polls show him leading by single digits while private Republican and Democratic surveys find a dead heat.
Tedisco has tried to stem the decline. Last Monday, he clearly stated his opposition to the stimulus measure.
"I would have voted no," Tedisco said. "I would have supported a stimulus package that had amendments to take out the waste."
By Wednesday, he tried to turn the tables on Murphy amid the furor over $165 million in executive bonuses that American International Group paid as it received billions in bailout money.
It was disclosed that Democrats diluted a stimulus provision that would have capped executive compensation for companies receiving bailouts. Critics claim that cleared the way for the AIG payouts.
"Did Scott Murphy knowingly support a bill that handed out millions in taxpayer funded bonuses to greedy Wall Street executives or did he simply not read the bill?" Tedisco asked as he accepted a Chamber of Commerce endorsement at a Malta, N.Y., hotel. "Either one is irresponsible."
Murphy hit back an hour later in Clifton Park. Standing outside of a high school to talk about stimulus dollars for local governments, he said, "That is just totally garbage. What he's doing is trying to confuse people."