By KIMBERLY HEFLING
Growing disenchantment over the Iraq war is proving the great equalizer in many areas, blurring traditional social and demographic distinctions that made it easy to paint sections of the electoral map red or blue.
Take the well-off Philadelphia suburbs, bastions of sidewalk cafes and million-dollar-plus homes. Here, Ginny McGovern, a mother of two and a nutrition therapist, no longer considers herself the lone Democratic voice among a chorus of Republicans.
McGovern said she and her neighbors now are singing from the same page — at least on issues such as the war, spending and President Bush.
"I think they were all for Bush in the beginning, but I think now they’ve kind of changed their tune a little bit," said McGovern, 42. "It doesn’t matter if they’re Republican or Democrat, they all think it’s unnecessary."
The wealthy Philadelphia suburbs historically have been a Republican stronghold, but recent shifts in voter registration and voting patterns have moved the region toward the Democrats.
This summer, for the first time since the state began keeping registration records in 1934, slightly more than 49 percent of voters in the four-county region listed their affiliation as Republican.
In 1990, 63 percent of voters in Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties were Republicans. Since then, Democratic registration has increased 7 percent to more than one-third of voters while the number of independent and minor party members doubled to 14 percent.
Whether the registration shift coupled with unhappiness with the president, the war and the country’s direction translates into Democratic wins in three GOP-held seats and the competitive Senate race is the million-dollar question.
Democrats need a gain of 15 seats to win majority control of the House, and an increasing number of states offer one or two opportunities. The Philadelphia suburbs, however, ranks as fertile territory.
The three House Republican incumbents represent districts that went for Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry in the last two presidential elections. In addition, two of the GOP lawmakers — Michael Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach — were elected within the last five years.
Democrats also are counting on this region to help them unseat two-term Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Senate Republican.
Even Tom Reynolds, the New York congressman who leads the Republican congressional committee, concedes the area is a "political battle zone."
In interviews across the region, voters from both parties expressed unease about the future. Some were downright angry, but some said they weren’t sure they were ready for a Democratic takeover of Congress.
"If the Democrats were to do that, it could lead to some rather strong, quick changes in foreign policy, which while could be popular with the current thinking of the American public, may not be in the best interest long-term of the country," said Matt Meyer, 36, an attorney, who was shopping with his wife and infant.
The early trouble signs are there for Rep. Curt Weldon, a 10-term member, who faces his most formidable opponent in Joe Sestak, who served as a Navy vice admiral. Gerlach has less cash than his challenger Lois Murphy — a rarity for an incumbent. Fitzpatrick, a freshman, lacks the name recognition.
Santorum won the region in 1994 and 2000. But in polls, he’s trailing Democrat Bob Casey here just as he is elsewhere in the state.
There are about 2.4 million people in the four counties — about one-fifth the state’s voters. Sprawling suburban towns with Home Depots dot the landscape as do old industrial towns, pristine farms and colonial boroughs.
Many people commute weekdays to Philadelphia, some even New York.
When asked which issues they care about, a prevailing number said they had serious concerns about the war and the economy. Gas prices and the deficit were also a worry; global warming and stem-cell research were mentioned. Frequently, voters said the quality of education is a concern.
The region has grown by about 300,000 people in the last 15 years. The political shift is due, in part, to Democrats like Jeffrey Alpart, 26, who left Philadelphia for the suburb of Warrington in search of better schools with his fiance and her two young children.
It’s also because of voters like Kristine Hook, 30, an accountant from Manayunk, who has less loyalty to a political party. At 18, Hook registered as a Republican because that’s what everyone did, but the single woman who supports abortion rights said she often votes for Democrats.
"I do think the administration has gotten way too far right," Hook said, leaving the post office in Conshohocken, an old Schuylkill river factory town. "Generally, I like it when the president is one party and Congress is controlled by the other party. It just seems like there’s more balance."
The Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week found that trust for Democrats to handle the economy is higher in the Northeast than any other region in the country. In addition, voters in the Northeast trust Democrats and Republicans equally to handle the situation in Iraq.
GOP candidates have taken measures to appeal to voters like Alpart and Hook by bragging about their independence from Bush. Weldon’s campaign slogan is "independent fighter for us."
Sestak and Fitzpatrick’s opponent, Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy, have both said troops should be withdrawn by the end of next year. That’s led to some tightrope walking for Republicans. In his campaign literature, Fitzpatrick says he rejects Murphy’s "cut and run" approach and Bush’s "stay the course" argument.
The Republicans are treading carefully to avoid losing lose core Republicans like Stuart Patterson, a 42-year-old insurance agent in Conshohocken, who said he will vote for Weldon unless he hears a better reason. Patterson recently signed papers for his 17-year-old son to join the Marines.
"I don’t know what the solution is over there, but I know sitting around doing nothing is not the right one," Patterson said.
Even staunch Republicans like Terry Hill acknowledge there are signs of unrest. Outside the Valley Forge gas station where he filed up his van on his commute home, he said Santorum campaign signs have repeatedly been stolen from his yard.
"I’ve been a big Bush supporter for a long time, but … these gas prices. I just wish he’d do something about them," said Hill, the director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "If he could do something about that, it will really help the whole Republican Party."
It not just Republicans feeling the voters’ wrath.
Joel Gottfried, 57, a software developer and lifelong Democrat from Wyndmorr, said he’s not particularly happy with Democrats either. Gottfried said he was disappointed when Santorum’s opponent sided with Bush in opposition to an expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
The most recent AP-Ipsos poll found that in the Northeast, support for Democratic candidates among registered voters dropped from 60 percent last month to 49 percent this month.
But Gottfried said Bush has alienated voters at an unprecedented level. Statewide, Bush’s approval rating has hovered in the 30s.
"I feel like the … administration that’s in power could care less about what I think, and the Republican stranglehold on power, I think, has been particularly corrosive," Gottfried said.
Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press