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Maryland congressional race shaping up as one of most competitive

From Deirdre Walsh, CNN Congressional Producer
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Battle for the house
  • Democrat Frank Kratovil is fighting to keep his job in Congress
  • His likely opponent: Republican state Sen. Andy Harris
  • Kratovil beat Harris by less than 1 percent of vote in 2008
  • National mood could be reflected in outcome of race
  • Maryland
  • Barack Obama

(CNN) -- If Republicans take back control of the House of Representatives in November, their path back to power starts only about an hour's drive from Washington, in Maryland's 1st Congressional District.

In what's shaping up to be one the most competitive House races this year, Democratic freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil is fighting to keep his job. He's facing public anger at congressional spending, and an opponent who is trying to tie him to President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as their popularity has dropped. That could spell trouble in a district that Republican John McCain won by almost 19 points in 2008.

In an interview with CNN Friday, Kratovil dismissed polls that show he's extremely vulnerable, but acknowledged that voter anger about government red ink is part of a broader distrust with politicians running Congress.

"I think it's not just frustration with the spending. There is a frustration with government in general," Kratovil said. "I mean we're losing faith in our institutions, we're losing faith in our elected officials," he added.

The congressman spent the July Fourth congressional break criss-crossing his district, which stretches along the eastern edge of the state, selling his record on jobs but deliberately downplaying his party label.

Kratovil will likely face the Republican he beat by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2008, Maryland state Sen. Andy Harris. Harris works as an anesthesiologist at Johns Hopkins. He was already named one of the Republicans' "Young Guns," which means he has national party backing, money, and is positioned to get big-name surrogates to campaign for him this fall.

Meeting with a group of local business leaders Friday in Elkton to discuss issues including trade and taxes, Kratovil repeatedly referred to himself as an "independent" and sounded more like a visitor to Washington, instead of the incumbent. He talked about his "first impressions of Washington, D.C." and slammed the "process" his own Democratic leaders use to pass legislation as broken and too driven by politics.

Republicans are zeroing in on Kratovil's vote in early 2008 for the stimulus bill as evidence that he's just another big-government Democrat.

Harris told CNN that Maryland voters don't think the stimulus worked and Kratovil's vote puts him out of step with the district.

"We've spent a trillion dollars of money we didn't have, it's gone and there's nothing to show for it...and people look at that, and they say, 'in my household I can't pay for that. How come the government is doing that?"'

But Kratovil argued there's little difference between a moderate Democrat like himself and the moderate Republican who represented the district before he did for nine terms. He repeatedly touted a survey from Congressional Quarterly listing him as one of the most independent Members of Congress, but his Republican challenger links him directly to Obama and Pelosi.

"Voting with the president, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi 85 percent of the time is not an independent voice. I think people are tired of what's going on in Washington, they're tired of the leadership in this Congress and of this president in not getting us the jobs we need, not fixing this economy, and I think that's what this election is going to be about," Harris told CNN as he made the rounds at the Talbot County Fair on Friday.

Kratovil defended his vote on the stimulus, pointing out that a Republican county commissioner recently thanked him for helping steer federal money to pave a road on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He reminds people that he does break with his party, voting against health care reform, and that he's a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition that focuses on reigning in federal spending.

"You can't cut off spending completely and have the economy collapse again. But at the same time, long term, we've got to make some tougher decisions and to do that we have to have some mechanisms in place that force us to do that," Kratovil said.

After meeting with business leaders in the morning, Kratovil spent Friday afternoon walking down Main Street in Bel Air, a Republican-leaning town where most local retailers report that business is up this summer.

The Maryland Democrat believes voters will decide his fate this fall based on how they feel about their own economic situation. He distanced himself from Pelosi, who he says is "obviously not popular" in his district.

"Just because I'm a Democrat doesn't mean at times my party isn't wrong, and it also doesn't mean that the other side from time to time doesn't have a good point or a good bill or a good idea. We need more people that are gonna be willing to recognize that and cross party lines, and we can have that in both parties," he said.

Kratovil carefully dodged a question about whether he'd vote for Pelosi again to serve as speaker of the House if Democrats retain control, saying he's focused on his own election and will wait to see who runs for speaker. But he clearly doesn't think the current Democratic leadership team reflects the views of moderates like him. "I do think that leadership-wise the Democratic party would be better if in some of the leadership positions there were some more moderate people," he said.

A senior Republican campaign official maintains this midterm election is a national one and that Harris will unseat Kratovil by focusing on the need for Republicans to regain control of the House of Representatives so they can be a check on President Obama's agenda.

Kratovil says the national mood will be a factor in his race. But he argued that if voters don't elect more political moderates like him, they will only end up with the same system that is frustrating so many people this election season.

"People complain about how Washington is broken and how it's so partisan and all of that and yet what we do is we then continue to send the same kind of people; far left and the far right," he said.

CNN's Brianna Keilar contributed to this report