BOISE, Idaho — As a crowd demanded Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick's firing — "Where's Walt?" one man shouted — the target of their fervor had quietly settled into a meeting with a group of Idaho sportsmen, a short drive away.
Leaning back in his chair, Minnick was at ease in a room decorated with a mounted moose head and bear-hide rugs. Questions posed to him centered on a proposal to allow Idaho and Montana to manage endangered gray wolves in their states.
While assuring the sportsmen that lawmakers were working on a plan, Minnick prompted chuckles when he added a caveat, "I'm rather distracted now by a range of other issues, and will be for the next 22 days."
Minnick himself is part of an endangered breed, a Democratic congressman in a Republican district. While John McCain received 62 percent of the vote in 2008, Minnick won his first term in the House by less than 5,000 votes. If he wins a second term in spite of voter anger with Washington and President Barack Obama, it will be because he's unlike most Democrats.
Minnick, 68, a Harvard graduate and former Nixon administration staffer who made millions as a Boise forest products executive, distances himself from Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at almost every turn. He reached out to the tea party. He voted against the health care overhaul bill and the bailouts, and he supports gun ownership.
Although some liberals may think his voting record aligns too closely with the GOP, he supports abortion rights and backed a bill aimed at allowing gays to serve openly in the military.
"By all national indicators, he should be in serious trouble," said political science professor David Redlawsk, who directs the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
Instead, Minnick has a lead and a fundraising advantage over his Republican opponent, state lawmaker Raul Labrador.
When the Republican National Committee's "Fire Pelosi" bus tour rallied about 200 Labrador supporters in nearby Caldwell, Labrador hammered his message to voters: By re-electing Minnick, they would enable Pelosi to keep her job.
Russ Smerz, who watched from the back row, voted for Minnick in 2008 because he promised he could do more for Idaho as a member of the majority party.
"That's my biggest beef with him," said Smerz, now an organizer with Tea Party Boise, the state's biggest tea party group. "He just did not live up to his campaign promises."
The Minnick-Labrador race has exposed an unusual split within the tea party movement. Labrador's platform — fiscally conservative, anti-Washington, small-government — understandably draws tea partiers.
Yet Minnick is the only Democrat to be endorsed by the Tea Party Express, though he disavowed the nod over a controversial blog posting satirizing the NAACP. He attended a town hall meeting with Tea Party Boise last year and has since kept the lines of communication open, even after the group endorsed Labrador.
Minnick has waged an aggressive campaign, with ads targeting Labrador's work as an immigration attorney. One TV ad claims that more than half his work is "helping illegal immigrants stay in the United States."
Labrador, 42, called Minnick a hypocrite, pointing out that in the 1990s Minnick had worked at the law firm that helped him finalize the adoption of "his foreign-born child."
Minnick and his wife have four children, one a daughter from China.
"He's scared," Labrador told the raucous crowd at the rally. "That's why he's running those nasty ads on TV."
In Idaho's 1st Congressional District, a stretch of western Idaho that spans from the state border with Nevada north to the border with Canada, Labrador has an inherent advantage in appearing on the same ticket as Sen. Mike Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter, said Phil Hardy, Labrador's spokesman.
"Imagine the ballot," Hardy said. "At the top of it Mike Crapo. Under Mike Crapo, Raul Labrador, under Raul Labrador, Butch Otter. That's power. Circle. Circle. Circle."
At Minnick's campaign headquarters, maps line the office of his field director, Tom Schwarz, who can rattle off how many potential Minnick voters live in any given precinct. A life-size cardboard cutout of the congressman guards the breakroom at his campaign headquarters, a not-so-subtle reminder to the team about the need to never let down their guard.
"We could do everything right and still lose," said Minnick's campaign manager, John Foster. "We never forget that."
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