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They’ve sniped at each other all summer, but now Rep. Vito Fossella (R–Bay Ridge) and Democrat Steve Harrison are on a collision course for the first of four debates next week.

It’s a chance for Harrison to gain visibility in a race against a popular nine-year incumbent whose position may be weakened by strong links to a president whose popularity has been plunging.

Fossella has also been rocked by reports that he misused campaign funds for personal pleasure trips and misspent taxpayer money on campaign mailings. This week, in fact, he was ordered by Congress to repay the government an estimated $60,000.

But despite his blemishes — not to mention Congress’s 25-percent approval rating and the 13th Congressional District’s majority Democratic electorate — Fossella still remains the man to beat.

Fossella’s path to reelection has been facilitated by inaction on the part of the national Democrats — even though one called him “Bush’s fair-haired boy in New York.”

But now, six weeks before Election Day, Harrison’s fellow donkeys have started pitching in. On Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer hosted a fundraiser in Bay Ridge for Harrison, at which Rep. Anthony Weiner (D–Sheepshead Bay) was the guest speaker.

The event raised at least $15,000, Harrison aides said, but it may be too little to late. Fossella, with his $458,000 cash on hand at the start of summer, is practically a Rockefeller compared to Harrison, who has raised only $70,000, and has just $8,000 on hand.

How little is that? Back in February, the Staten Island Democratic Party Chairman, Assemblyman John Lavelle, told The Brooklyn Papers that Harrison would need at least $250,000 to be a viable candidate.

But he also assumed that the national party would assist Harrison, given how intently the Democrats want to regain the House. To do so, the party needs Harrison to win back the district’s many Reagan Democrats.

DCCC officials refused to return repeated calls for comment explaining why the organization hasn’t done more for Harrison.

But Weiner speculated that the DCCC is reluctant to take on Fossella, whom he called “a formidable candidate” and “a hard-working guy.”

That jibes with what other political insiders have said — namely, that to get money from the DCCC, a candidate needs to appear strong.

“He has to convince national Democrats that this seat is one that can be taken,” said Stefan Friedman, a consultant who helped guide City Councilwoman Yvette Clarke (D–Crown Heights) to victory in the 11th Congressional District primary. “They see that he’s serious by looking at polls and money.

“To say Harrison has ‘limited resources’ would be generous,” Friedman added.

But supporters like Weiner argue that Harrison can win without the DCCC’s involvement.

“At the end of the day, it takes a lot of money to neutralize a powerful message,” said Weiner, “and I think Harrison has a powerful message.”

Of course, a campaign is not all about money.

It’s also about name recognition — another area in which Harrison has not excelled.

Despite eight months of Harrison’s canvassing, many residents of the district don’t know who is running against their Congressman.

The owner of Toys Toys Toys on Third Avenue is a Democrat, but he’s never heard of Harrison.

Neither has Linda, a mother of two, who was sitting outside a Bay Ridge bagel shop last week, although she, too, is a Democrat. But she had heard of Fossella, and she made a point of noting, “I vote out of party all the time.”

That Harrison’s name recognition is so slight in his own neighborhood does not bode well for his success in Staten Island, which contains most of the district.

“Fossella is still a very important name on the Island, and name matters,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant.

“Harrison would have to have the money to buy name identifica­tion.”

He doesn’t have the cash, but recent political maneuvering indicates that Fossella does consider Harrison a threat.

Staten Island Republicans have asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate Harrison for improperly reporting campaign donations.

Unsurprisingly, Harrison’s campaign is calling the Republicans’ bluff.

“It’s more than just coincidence that within the same week that Congress found that Fossella … will have to repay the government $60,000, they’re sending in a complaint,” said Brian Kaszuba, Harrison’s campaign manager.

“They’re just trying to spin something.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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