Do Incumbents Have Unfair Advantage?

What does it take to win, or more importantly, keep a seat in the House of Representatives?

The congressional race in southeast Pittsburgh is a good case study. The story is familiar, since money is the mother's milk of politics.

Republican Rep. Tim Murphy, a doctor, is a first-time incumbent from the 18th District of Pennsylvania campaigning to keep his seat in the House.

Democrat Mark Boles, also a doctor, is a first-time challenger seeking to unseat Murphy.

To date, it has been a civil race, without slashing attacks from either candidate, a rarity in contemporary American politics. Both men, who once worked at the same hospital, have that "I care for people" manner of most doctors.

"I mean, he's a good guy," Murphy said of Boles. "I knew him at Mercy Hospital, we worked together."

Said Boles: "It almost makes it difficult because, as I am learning about politics, you want to tell people to fire him and hire me."

But the difference between these two men is the money they need to run an effective campaign.

Murphy has more than enough funding to produce the all-important television commercials to publicize his campaign.

"It costs money to buy TV time from your stations," he said. "I am going to buy a commercial on one TV show that costs me $7,800 for 30 seconds. What do I do about that?"

But Boles hasn't even got money for television ads.

"I can tell you what I've got, and I would just say loosely -- not a lot," he said, laughing.

Incumbents Have More Money

When running for the House of Representatives, in no matter what part of the country, the incumbent almost always has more money.

Incumbents have so much more money than their challengers that by the end of the pre-campaign reform, free-spending 1990s, 98 percent of the incumbents in Congress were being reelected. They have political action committees in Washington, and lobbyists who provide money.

In Murphy's case, the incumbent Bush administration has helped his fund raising as well.

"There hasn't been anything direct with the president, but the vice president did a fund-raiser," he said.

Murphy estimated that the event raised $150,000.

Boles, on the other hand, said he spent $150,000 on his whole campaign, of which $120,000 was his own money.

That fact is largely why, according to the ABC News Political Unit, of the 435 House seats being contested in the 2004 election, no more than 49 are regarded as competitive.

Murphy was quick to offer an explanation.

"What happens is that you have to know people, and people have to know what you're working on for them," he said. "One doesn't just go out there and people say, 'I am going to send you money because you're an incumbent.' They really want to know you're working with them."

In the event that Boles loses the election, he said spending $120,000 of his own money will be well worth it.

"I will tell you myself that I have changed over the last 18 months," he said. "I've learned that you need to be your brother's keeper, and that we are all in this world together. So I have grown from it. Money well spent."

Peter Jennings filed this report for World News Tonight.