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Solidly Republican, Suddenly in Doubt

"It's a closer race than I first imagined," she told Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), according to the Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in Spokane. Changing voter attitudes in her conservative, mostly rural district, she said, have been "pretty dramatic."

McMorris and Craig apparently thought they were speaking privately before the start of a campaign teleconference with veterans. But an operator had connected Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Camden, who was on mute and could not announce his presence.

Craig, who is not up for reelection, told McMorris that she was not alone in feeling Democratic heat. "The new numbers are just devastating," he reportedly said.

McMorris's Democratic opponent is Peter Goldmark, a rancher whose surprising strength has attracted the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which last week began spending $323,000 on television ads opposing McMorris.

In suburban Seattle's 8th Congressional District, the Republican incumbent, Rep. David G. Reichert, a well-known former sheriff from King County, is also facing a robust challenge -- from a political neophyte, Darcy Burner, 35, a former Microsoft executive.

The race, in a swing district where Democrats consistently win the presidential vote but Republicans hold the House, is widely viewed as a tossup. While behind in total fundraising, Burner has raised more money in recent months than Reichert has. To shore up the former sheriff, who made his name by catching the notorious Green River killer, the Republican National Congressional Committee has recently stepped up spending on television ads.

Here in Idaho, political analysts say that a competitive House race would never have been possible, except for the unlikely convergence of two destabilizing forces -- a noxious national climate for Republicans and a Republican candidate with a knack for being obnoxious. The Republican incumbent in Idaho's only other House seat, Rep. Mike Simpson, once threatened to throw Sali out a window.

Sali, 52, who won a bitter Republican primary against five opponents with 26 percent of the vote, has made strident opposition to abortion the signature issue of his 16-year political career.

Most notably, as Sali said in an interview in northern Idaho on Friday evening, he sees a causal link between abortion and breast cancer. "If you have an abortion, you are at increased risk," he said.

Recent studies of large numbers of women consistently show no such link, according to the National Cancer Institute, one of the federal National Institutes of Health.

Sali's pugnacious rhetoric on abortion and breast cancer during a debate this year in the Idaho House led to a walkout by Democrats and to a public tongue-lashing by House Speaker Newcomb.

"He doesn't have one ounce of empathy in his whole fricking body, and you can put that in the paper," Newcomb told reporters.

At a Republican campaign forum in northern Idaho on Friday night, a middle-aged woman from Bonner County who described herself as a party activist said that she and other Republican women in Idaho are offended by Sali's views on breast cancer.

"Women are angry about that," she said, insisting that she not be identified because of party loyalty. "They see it as an affront to their health issues."

In polls conducted for Grant, the issue showed up as one of the strongest negatives for Sali, according to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster based in Washington, D.C.

Political analysts in Idaho say the issue is one of Sali's many problems in securing broad Republican support.

"He has simply aggravated a lot of people over time," said Randy Stapilus, a blogger and former political editor for the Idaho Statesman. "There are a lot of Republican leaders who don't much care for Sali."

Still, this is Idaho.

"There are probably a lot of voters who have never voted for a Democrat, so you have to figure Sali is the more probable winner," Stapilus said. "But this is a different dynamic than we have seen for quite a long time."

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