If Republicans are to harness enough voter anger to take control of the House this fall, they'll have to oust freshmen lawmakers such as Tom Perriello of Virginia, who won his seat two years ago by just 727 votes.
His support for President Barack Obama's health care and energy bills make him a White House favorite. But he's also a prime target for Republicans in this rural, economically troubled district, which Obama lost to Republican John McCain in 2008.
First, however, Republicans must unite their own fractious base. Some tea party activists still say the GOP nominee, state Sen. Robert Hurt, is too mainstream and orthodox. One of them, Jeff Clark, is on the November ballot as an independent, and he threatens to siphon conservative votes from Hurt.
This central Virginia contest is a microcosm of competitive races nationwide that will determine whether Republicans pick up the 40 House seats they need to regain a majority in the 435-seat House after four years out of power.
Perriello, like scores of fellow Democrats, is pressed to defend his votes for health care and carbon limits — commonly known as cap and trade — to many of his constituents who see them as too costly and intrusive.
Like many GOP challengers, Hurt is criticizing those votes and hoping a rising tide of public alarm about federal debt and spending will overcome unfavorable memories of George W. Bush's presidency. But polls show that the Republican Party remains relatively unpopular. Hurt and other GOP candidates must convince voters that Republicans have rejected their own deficit-spending habits and can manage the economy better than Democrats.
Perriello constantly cites his efforts to bring jobs to the district. His newest TV ad mentions federal money for local police, and a stimulus grant that helps the city of Martinsville generate power from its landfill's methane gas. But the grants are sometimes overshadowed by new layoffs in a Danville factory or the recently closed tire-making plant in Scottsville.
Perriello — an earnest, round-faced man with broad shoulders, a Ford pickup truck and a Yale law degree — tries to make a virtue of his votes for health care and climate change bills. Campaigning recently in a sprawling antiques store in Scottsville, he said he's willing to take risks to help Virginians obtain medical insurance and new clean energy jobs.
Sometimes, he said, "you're losing 400 jobs here and creating 40 here, so we're excited about the 40. But we're treading water right now."
Cameron Crounse, who had invited Perriello to his River Town Antiques store, listened as the 35-year-old lawmaker told officials he's pursuing more grants to spur economic growth. But it wasn't clear whether the half-hour visit did anyone much good.
"I want to throw out everybody and start over," Crounse said in an interview as Perriello was leaving.
In fact, in four hours of store-to-store campaigning in Scottsville and nearby Fork Union, it was unclear whether Perriello picked up a single vote he didn't already have.
Hurt, 41, didn't fare much better the next day. His problems, however, were with conservative activists rather than uncommitted centrists.
Hurt won a spirited Republican primary last month when tea party supporters split their votes rather than unite behind one hard-right candidate. A conservative by virtually any measure, Hurt is now struggling to appease those who question the fierceness of his views.
At a Republican breakfast in Charlottesville, Hurt spoke for 11 minutes and then took three questions. They ranged from edgy to hostile.
"I don't think the message that you have is going to beat Perriello," the first questioner said. "You didn't once tell us what you're going to do" to lower taxes, reduce federal spending or repeal "Obamacare."
Hurt, a lawyer and nine-year state legislator, calmly said he would fight to cut taxes, end funding of the health care law and amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget.
A second man asked Hurt to pledge to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency and farm subsidies — a touchy subject in the heavily rural district.
"There's not anything we can't look at," Hurt said cautiously.
The issue this fall, he said, is "do you want two more years of Tom Perriello and (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi, or do you want a new vision" that will reduce taxes, regulations, spending and debt.
Like many Republicans, Hurt is tying his opponent to Pelosi, hoping the California Democrat is a better guilt-by-association target than Obama, whose personal popularity remains fairly high. Hurt rarely veers from a well-tested, mainstream GOP message: If the government cuts taxes, spending and regulation, then the private sector will create jobs and the economy will expand.
Asked in an interview if the Wall Street meltdown and Gulf of Mexico oil spill suggest that regulation is vital, he said it should be carefully tailored and used only where necessary.
The bumps that Hurt and Perriello are finding on the campaign trail reflect nationwide discontent and suspicion among voters. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 68 percent of voters lack confidence in Democratic lawmakers, and 72 percent lack confidence in Republican lawmakers.
Only 26 percent of registered voters said they were likely to vote for their current House representative. Among those most likely to vote, 56 percent said they would prefer a GOP takeover of the House.
Perriello, a bachelor who spends long hours on his job and campaign, is reprising a tactic that some colleagues question. Last summer, he held 21 town hall meetings in his district, drawing big crowds that sometimes berated him for hours about health care and other matters. Perriello, who beat six-term GOP Rep. Virgil Goode in 2008, says he will hold a similar number in August.
He also has parted ways with Obama on some issues, such as the financial regulation bill. Perriello said it doesn't do enough to curb "too big to fail" treatment of banks.
"Even my critics think that I work my tail off and I show up every weekend, so people know me," he said. "I've been very critical of the president's economic team. But I do believe we had to do things like health care reform and energy independence."
Hurt, a married father of three, has yet to run TV ads, and spends part of his time tending conservatives' wounds from the June 8 primary.
Gary Lowe, a construction project manager from Greene County, is a tea party activist who opposed Hurt then but now asks friends to get on board.
"I tell them 'You've got to get over this,'" said Lowe, 57. "This is the only alternative we have."
If the embrace was lukewarm, so are the reactions Perriello sometimes receives in small towns. He spent 10 minutes making occasionally strained small talk with Stan Morris, a former construction worker who opened a video rental store in Fork Union with $15,000 in savings.
After the congressman left, Morris and his wife, Karen, sat outdoors, hoping for a customer. He was flattered by the visit, Morris said, but "I hear a lot of negative things on the news" about Perriello's voting record.
How will Morris vote on Nov. 2? He puffed his cigarette thoughtfully and said he wasn't sure.
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