With three weeks until the midterm elections, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Himes and Republican challenger Dan Debicella are reaching to moderate and unaffiliated voters, painting each other as too extreme for Fairfield County’s 4th Congressional District.

“I feel very comfortable about the very clear distinction between what we’re proposing to the voters of the district,” Himes said. “Look at the baloney [Debicella] is pedaling as an economic plan, and the record of his party, and people will make the right choice.”

Debicella, who was elected to the state Senate in 2006, said the first-term Democratic congressman who unseated Republican Chris Shays in 2008 is on the wrong side of every issue.

“Everyone should ask themselves if they think the economy is doing well,” Debicella said. “If people agree with Jim and they think the economy is doing well, if they think the stimulus is a good thing, then they should vote for Jim Himes.”

A poll released last week shows the opponents in a dead heat.

“It’s clear that people out there are not happy with Washington, not happy with the economy,” Debicella said, lapsing to familiar talking points. “People see, as this campaign continues, that Jim Himes the Washington agenda.”

Himes concedes that his re-election is far from guaranteed.

“I’m no more comfortable than Chris Shays was in the election before this one,” he said.

The latest poll, commissioned by CT Capitol Report and conducted by the Merriman River Group, surveyed 411 likely voters in the 4th district. It shows that Obama could be a factor.

“Himes’ fortunes may be tied to President Obama’s approval rating,” said the poll’s executive director, Matthew Finch.

Voters approving of Obama’s job performances support Himes, nearly 9 to 1. Voters disapproving of the president support Debicella by nearly the same margin.

Finch said turnout in Bridgeport, where a heavy vote in 2008 helped Himes unseat Shays, is key to Himes’ retaining the seat.

“If you look back you can see that the fortunes of the Democratic candidates rises and falls with Bridgeport,” Finch said. “Bridgeport turnout will be key.”

Debicella hopes to hold down Himes’ margin in largely Democratic Bridgeport; he’s looking to the suburbs and other areas for support.

“I have deep roots in Bridgeport,” said Debicella, who was raised there and in Norwalk. “I’m under no illusion that I’m going to win the city. But Himes is not going to win it by as much as he did two years ago because people there know me.”

Despite Debicella’s Bridgeport roots, Himes has accused Debicella of hostility to urban issues.

“If you look at proposals that are made in the Republican pledge for example, there’s really no mention at all of how we support people in places like Bridgeport where people are really suffering,” Himes said. “He calls our efforts failed, but we inherited, thanks to his party’s leadership, a situation where we were losing 750,000 jobs every single month.”

In September, Debicella announced his support for the Republican “Pledge to America,” which includes a plan to repeal and replace the health care bill, but said he would remain independent.

Though he didn’t directly respond to the “anti-urban” label, Debicella insisted he had those areas in mind.

“The urban agenda needs to be job creation in our cities. The only way Bridgeport is going to recover is if the companies come back. If there is job creation, that’s when the renaissance comes. If you look at cities that have gotten this right by attracting companies, like Baltimore, we need to be doing the same thing.”

Government is terrible at creating jobs, says Debicella, but can help by creating the right conditions for business.

“Federal, state and local government need to team up and attract businesses back to the cities,” he says. “Economic growth and getting people good jobs is the start, and from there that will give us the revenue to improve education, reduce crime, and do all those other necessary things.”

The obvious big-ticket this year is economic recovery, but Debicella’s 3-point economic plan falls short, Himes said. “I’m working hard while Debicella has come up with up with an economic proposal that consists of giving away money that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Debicella’s plan, announced last month, would use unspent stimulus funds for tax relief for middle class families and small business, to make the 2001 and 2003 Bush era tax cuts permanent, and to put a federal spending cap in place. And he thinks it’s realistic.

“I hope there will be enough bipartisan goodwill in Congress to pass these measures,” he said.

Himes is skeptical.

“One of the things that he’s trying to do is convince people that he’s both fiscally responsible and he’s pinning deficits that were created by a Republican president on me,” Himes said. “But then he’s turning around and saying let’s make the ’01 and ’03 tax cuts permanent, which is a $3.7 trillion hole in the budget.”

Himes wants his constituents to notice Democratic accomplishments: jobs saved by the stimulus, an improved market and even corporate profits.

“Look at the improvement,” he said. “And I say this humbly, because the improvement has still not caught up with way too many Americans, but look at the improvement.”

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