WASHINGTON — The narrow victory of Democrat Niki Tsongas in a special congressional election in Massachusetts offers warnings to both Republicans and Democrats for 2008.

Her victory speaks to the continuing unpopularity of President Bush and the war in Iraq. But her less than robust margin over Republican Jim Ogonowski — she won 51 percent to his 45 percent, with minor party candidates taking the rest — tells Democrats they cannot assume that Bush’s low standing will turn the road to next year’s elections into easy street. Individual candidates can still trump party affiliation, and sleeper issues can catch politicians by surprise.

In Massachusetts’ Fifth Congressional District — a collection of mill towns and affluent and blue-collar suburbs north of Boston — the surprise issue was illegal immigration. Ogonowski made it the centerpiece of an anti-Washington campaign. An Ogonowski news release, for example, accused Tsongas of being “committed to giving cheap college to illegals at taxpayer expense.”

Tsongas, a community college dean, favored granting in-state tuition rates to the children of undocumented immigrants. In Ogonowski’s translation, Tsongas believed that “Massachusetts taxpayers should foot the bill for the college tuition of the children of illegals.”

Republicans think the immigration issue helped Ogonowski, so the country may be in for a lot more of this sort of thing next year. “Everywhere we went, people wanted to talk about immigration,” said Matt Wylie, Ogonowski’s general consultant. “It was just coming up over and over again.”

The personal played, too. Ogonowski, an affable hay farmer and retired Air Force and Air National Guard officer, was well suited to the populist, anti-Washington campaign that national Republicans hoped would provide a template for their candidates in 2008. His brother John, an American Airlines pilot, was killed when his hijacked plane was flown into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Ogonowski cast himself as the regular guy facing a political pro.

Tsongas, a lawyer whose experience in politics dates back to Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, is the wife of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, beloved in his old district, particularly in Lowell, the hometown he helped revive with the creative use of federal aid. His popularity propelled Niki Tsongas into an early lead, but there was grumbling that her name was her principal asset.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and national liberal groups sensed early on that the contest was far from a lock and poured in money, people and advice. Jennifer Crider, the DCCC’s communications director, said final tallies will show that the Tsongas side outspent Ogonowski and his allies by about 4 to 1.

Democratic strategists were not only worried that Ogonowski was running a better campaign than Tsongas. They also noticed that the district was one of the least Democratic in a very blue state. Many of its nominal Democrats are Reagan Democrats.

“There are different shades of blue,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chair of the DCCC, “and this one is a very light shade.” In 2006, Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick carried the state by a landslide but won less than 51 percent in the fifth. Three former Republican governors, Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci and Bill Weld, carried the district outright.

But this time, the Democrats had three trump cards: Bush, Iraq, and the president’s veto of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP.

Ogonowski tried to get around Bush. He said he did not want the president campaigning for him. His ads cast him as “not a partisan politician.” His pollster, Rob Autry, said it was no accident that the Republican ran not so much against Congress as against Washington as a whole.

But this could not immunize his candidacy from what Autry said was “an issue that, unfortunately, has resonance.” The pollster described the “issue” with a compound word: “Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld.” On Iraq, Ogonowski said the war was a mistake, but was far less clear than Tsongas on withdrawing troops. She made ending the war a central theme of her campaign.

The Republican’s final mistake was not taking a firm stand against Bush’s SCHIP veto, which Tsongas roundly condemned. This, said Autry, “provided Tsongas with an example of where Ogonowski supported Bush’s position.” With health care as a rallying cry, Tsongas brought more than enough Democrats home.

A Tsongas loss might have justified the National Republican Congressional Committee’s postelection spin that “the political tide has turned” since 2006. In fact, the issues that worked in 2006 came through again this week, and children’s health care is now an additional Republican burden.

But Tsongas’ victory was harder than it should have been. Any Democrat still complacent about 2008 should go over the returns from Paul Tsongas’ old district.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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