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Democrat Kratovil vs. Republican Harris: Let the air wars begin!

Republicans are about to launch their first attack ad of the 2010 campaign against Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil of Maryland.

The 30-second TV spot links the freshman congressman to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the controversy over whether the CIA deceived her about the torture of detainees.

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Done as a takeoff on the old "Mission: Impossible" TV and film series, the Republican ad goes after Kratovil for taking Pelosi's side by voting to kill a Republican effort to launch a House investigation into the speaker's statements. In a low-budget "morph," an unflattering photo of the Baltimore-born speaker becomes one with a grinning Kratovil.

The ad doesn't mention that Kratovil was one of 250 House Democrats and two Republicans who voted that way (or that no Democrats voted with 172 Republicans in favor of an investigation). Technically, the vote revolved around a parliamentary ruling about whether the investigation should have been considered as a regular piece of legislation.

And while the ad, accurately, portrays Kratovil as voting with his party (and thus Pelosi) about 89% of the time, that's actually below average for Democratic party support among House members this year.

"The more that Democrats like Frank Kratovil side with Nancy Pelosi, the more that she will become a political liability in increasingly competitive districts. Even when it came to investigating the Speaker's outrageous accusations against the CIA, Kratovil caved to his party leader rather than supporting the values of his constituents in Maryland," said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which paid $23,000 to air the spot over the next week.

Kevin W. Lawlor, a spokesman for Kratovil, said the congressman "is busy focusing on his job --being the most effective advocate he can be for the residents of the First District. If a bunch of party hacks in DC want to start in with political smears 18 months before Election Day, then that's their right, but I think most folks across the district are pretty tired of that sort of petty partisanship."

The attack on Kratovil is part of what some regard as perhaps the most successful Republican tactic thus far in the (very young) Barack Obama era: making Pelosi the prime target of partisan attacks, rather than the popular Democratic president.

Pelosi's poll numbers have fallen over the past few months, and her approval ratings are even lower than congressional Democrats as a group. However, as a general rule, tying members of Congress to their party's leader in the House has had, at best, limited success over the years.

In the 1980s, Republicans tried to make portly House Speaker Tip O'Neill a symbol of bloated, liberal Democratic government. TV attack ads featured an actor impersonating the old-time Irish pol from the Boston area. Democrats, in the 1990s, returned the favor, using Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich as a punching bag in congressional campaigns.

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One problem with that tactic, at least in the past: many voters don't know (or perhaps care) who the speaker is.

In 2008, the national parties and special-interest groups poured more than $3 million into the First District, which includes the entire Eastern Shore and jumps the Bay to take in a significant portion of Western Shore counties.

Kratovil, who won last year by the skin of his teeth, is facing a rematch with Republican State Sen. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, who figures to get considerably more support from the national Republican Party than he did last time.

The Republican ads against Kratovil, slated to begin airing Thursday on Salisbury's WBOC-TV, aren't the first TV commercials of the 2010 campaign in the district, already among the most hotly contested in the nation.

The drug industry fired the opening round a week ago, a pro-Kratovil TV ad that is running more often than the Republican one (both buys are moderately heavy, meaning they will likely be seen by many voters).

The industry ad praises Kratovil for voting earlier this year to expand health care coverage for children in Maryland whose families lack insurance.

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Drug manufacturers, who fought to kill health reform in 1994, are taking a strikingly different tack this time. They are siding with those who favor overhauling the system, hoping that as a result they'll gain more leverage over the key issue (for them and everyone else) of prescription prices.

"We are committed to helping build greater consensus and support for reform that ensures all Americans have access to high-quality and affordable health care coverage," said Ken Johnson, a senior vice president for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, whose group sponsored the pro-Kratovil spot as part of a broader national campaign.

And to think that Election Day is just 523 days away!

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