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Democrat in uphill race to gain Shuster seat

Friday, January 26, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Democrats have given a first-term Centre County commissioner the all-but-final nod to run for retiring Rep. Bud Shuster's congressional seat.

And if he likes challenges, 42-year-old Scott Conklin should adore this one. His mission: become the first Democrat in 67 years to wrest control of this south-central Pennsylvania Republican fortress. "Any election's an uphill fight," Conklin said yesterday. "I'm running to win."

"It's such a highly Republican district. ... Whoever gets the Republican nomination has a 95 percent chance of winning it -- or maybe 99 percent," said observer Hugh Jones, chairman of the political science department at Shippensburg University.

Conklin, a former contractor from Philipsburg, at the northwest end of the 11-county 9th District, took office last year as a Centre County commissioner, winning that seat after failed runs for state House and state Senate.

The chance for the congressional seat opened when Shuster, 68, fresh from re-election, announced Jan. 4 that he would retire Wednesday.

For Conklin, the path opened wider this week when potential challenger state Rep. Jeffrey Coy -- a Democrat who won re-election eight times in heavily Republican Franklin County -- decided against running.

On Wednesday, party chairmen from 10 of the district's 11 counties chose Conklin from a slate of five candidates that ranged from Altoona oncologist Dr. Jack Shocker to Stacey Brumbaugh, a Blair County lawyer whose resume includes a stint as deputy director of correspondence to then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Conklin's name needs final approval from the Democratic State Committee's executive board. "I can't imagine that the executive board would overturn the desires of the county chairmen," said Joanne Whitsel, Democratic chairwoman in Huntingdon County.

"There was a lot of loyalty for Jeff Coy, but Scott is an extremely strong candidate."

Strength he'll need. The special election is likely to coincide with the May primary, giving Conklin 31/2 months to figure how to beat the 56-44 percent voter registration edge that the Republican candidate inherits.

Shuster's son, Blair County auto dealer William Shuster, as well as state Rep. Patrick Fleagle, R-Franklin County, and Blair County Republican Chairman John Eichelberger are early front-runners for the Republican nomination.

"The only way I see a Democrat having a chance is if Shuster's son gets the nomination and there's a backlash against the Shuster name," Jones said. "Bud Shuster brought a lot of money to the district but he stepped on a number of toes, too."

Conklin also faces the same dilemma saddling most of the field. This district -- second-largest in the state -- is a disparate sprawl, running from the Susquehanna River to the Allegheny Front, from Interstate 80 to the Maryland line.

A front-page name in one edge of the district is a mystery in another. "Scott Conklin isn't known down here at all," said William Butts, Democratic chairman in Franklin County, part of the 9th District's southern tier. "It's like with the Republicans. The names don't register."

With an advertising onslaught, they could. The 9th District race ought to be awash in national funding, waged against a backdrop where Republicans carry a thin, nine-vote margin in the House. "And it's going to be extremely intense because it'll be extremely short, and there won't be time to run a grass-roots campaign," Whitsel said.

Conklin, though, was talking yesterday about working the district door-to-door and challenging his Republican opponent to debates in all 11 counties. "Normally, I get five hours' sleep a night," said Conklin, married and the father of one. "When I campaign, I get three."

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