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Ex-Marine, Columnist Among Democrats Vying To Challenge Northup

Published: May. 6, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 12, 2006 at 3:16 PM EDT
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(LOUISVILLE) -- In the Kentucky Derby's hometown, Democrats have been handicapping more than horses -- they're scrutinizing a field of congressional candidates in hopes of picking a winner against a campaign-tested Republican.

Along with the Iraq war and high gas prices, their minds are on the electability of the party's nominee in November in Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District. Simply, Democrats want someone who can defeat U.S. Rep. Anne Northup.

Unseating Northup could be quite a task. She is a five-term incumbent, a prolific campaign fundraiser and George W. Bush ally who has withstood tough challenges as a biennial target in the Democratic-leaning district.

The candidates in the Democratic primary include Andrew Horne, an Iraq war veteran and political newcomer who switched from independent to Democrat a few months ago, and John Yarmuth, a well-known liberal columnist who ran for county office years ago as a Republican.

Even some staunch Democrats concede that ousting Northup will be tough.

"Looking at the whole field and based on the opposition, Mrs. Northup is going to be one hard nut to crack," said John Johnson, who hadn't yet picked a candidate to back in the May 16 primary election in the Louisville-area district.

Meanwhile, the Democratic congressional primary in the 1st District pits former Rep. Tom Barlow against Eric Streit of Paducah and Jim Bloink of Scottsville. The winner will face incumbent U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield.

In the 2nd Congressional District, state Rep. Mike Weaver of Radcliff and James Rice of Campbellsville are competing in the Democratic primary for the right to challenge U.S. Rep. Ron Lewis in November.

Two Democrats are running to challenge U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers in the 5th District -- Kenneth Stepp of Barbourville and James Tapley of Pine Knot.

There were no primaries in the state's two other congressional districts. Republicans hold five of the state's six U.S. House seats.

In Louisville, Democratic congressional candidates weighed in on the electability factor in a district that favored John Kerry over Bush in 2004 but also chose Northup by a wide margin.

Horne touts his 27 years in the Marines and Marine Reserve, including stints in the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq war.

Horne, a lawyer, grew up in Louisville's South End, where some blue-collar Democrats have shown a willingness to cross over and vote Republican.

"I think a lot of the Democrats that have been leaving the party look to that type of service and they can relate to it," Horne said of his military record.

Yarmuth, founder of an alternative newspaper in Louisville, said his credentials include wide name recognition and familiarity with the issues. He is a longtime columnist and television commentator.

"Anne Northup's never faced an opponent like me," he said.

Also running in the Democratic primary are James Moore, an engineer and owner of a consulting company, and perennial candidate Burrel Charles Farnsley.

Much of the focus leading up to the election has been on Iraq. Horne and Yarmuth were critical of President Bush's handling of the war, but differ on the timing of any U.S. military pullback.

Horne, a retired lieutenant colonel, bluntly accuses Bush of mishandling the fight against terrorism.

"I think the war on terror has gone terribly," he said.

Without offering specifics, Horne said an exit strategy in Iraq should be based on events, but that Iraqis must shoulder the security of their country.

"I believe the sooner our troops are out of Iraq, the better for the troops, our country and Iraq," Horne said, adding that the U.S. has a "moral obligation to aid the Iraqis to reach their destiny."

Yarmuth called for an immediate withdrawal. However, he favors keeping some soldiers there to train Iraqi security forces, and maintaining a U.S. military presence in the region to deter Iran.

"We don't need to be in the streets in any town patrolling and being in a position where we can be perceived as an occupying force," he said.

The two candidates also cited health care as a pressing need.

Yarmuth called universal health coverage a "moral mandate." He said he supports a single-payer system that he contended would benefit businesses now strapped by high costs to insure employees.

"It can be a great force for making our businesses more competitive," said Yarmuth, who displayed an ease while speaking to a gathering of voters.

Yarmuth said he was open to suggestions but mentioned one option -- expanding Medicare to cover every American.

Horne suggested short-term relief such as raising income eligibility to let more people qualify for Medicaid and allowing people to purchase health coverage available to government workers.

The candidates reserved most of their criticism for Northup.

Yarmuth accused the Republican incumbent of being cozy with Big Oil. He said she voted to give tax breaks to the industry, and raked in large campaign contributions from oil and gas interests over the years.

"We have a government that the people who pay for the privilege get listened to, and everyone else gets ignored," he said.

Northup chief of staff Terry Carmack countered that Northup has tried to make the country less dependent on foreign oil, and that Yarmuth was "taking votes out of context in an attempt to score political points."

Horne said Northup's voting record has been in virtual lockstep with Bush.

"I assess her like I assess him -- she has not gone about the people's business," he said.

Carmack replied that Northup parts ways with the president when she disagrees with him on policy.

The two Democrats also questioned each other's ability to take on Northup.

Horne said Yarmuth is too liberal, and that his columns and everything else that appeared in his newspaper, including ads for adult-entertainment businesses, would be "hung around his neck" if he wins the nomination.

Yarmuth questioned Horne's credentials. "He's a nice guy and I respect his service, but what else does he have?" he asked.

Yarmuth's campaign was well ahead of Horne's in fundraising at the end of March, thanks in part to a $133,127 loan from Yarmuth. His campaign had $291,753 cash on hand at the end of the period and Horne had just under $82,000 cash on hand.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Northup is among a few Republicans nationally to hold a Democratic-leaning House seat. He said she is the favorite this November, but added that Bush's low public approval poses a problem for her.

"If there is a Democratic wave in November, it might show up there," he said. "She has to be concerned about that."

Democrats had different opinions on who should be the challenger to Northup.

Peggy Rudd said she liked Yarmuth as a challenger to Northup because of his intellect and speaking ability.

"I think he would kind of chew her up" in a debate, she said.

Mary Hilton acknowledged that Horne isn't as polished but added, "I really think his military service would have wide appeal."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)