Conservatives seeking a gleam of hope amid gloomy prospects for November are beginning to turn their eyes toward sunny Florida, where an Iraq war veteran is waging a David-and-Goliath battle for Congress.
Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who made headlines five years ago with his gunpoint interrogation of an Iraqi prisoner, is challenging first-term Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in Florida's 22nd District.
After the 2006 midterm meltdown that helped Klein defeat 13-term incumbent Clay Shaw, many Republicans -- including presidential candidate Sen. John McCain -- are campaigning as boring centrists.
West, however, is bringing a back-to-basics conservative message. He takes a strong stance against illegal immigration, favors drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and criticizes free-spending Washington ways.
"What you see happening is that the Republican Party has gotten away from its basic ideology," West says, adding that 2006 "was a bad year for Republicans because they started acting like Democrats."
TWO YEARS AGO, congressional scandals -- including the House page imbroglio involving Rep. Mark Foley in the neighboring 16th district -- helped drag down Shaw in the 22nd District.
Republicans were hurt, West says, by "the kind of corruption that people expect from liberal Democrats." This year, West has sought to turn that issue around. He has criticized Klein for "personal earmarks totaling more than $12 million" and accused the incumbent of spending taxpayer money for mailings that contain "blatantly political statements."
While Klein has an enormous fundraising advantage -- as of April 1, the Democrat had about $2 million in campaign cash to about $100,000 for West -- West points out that Klein is an incumbent in a year when congressional approval ratings are at an abysmal low.
West charges that much of Klein's money comes from PACs and "special interests," and he quotes the Florida Democratic Party chairwoman's criticism of taxpayer-funded mailings: "The people of Florida are suffering...Your campaign coffers are not."
The Republican challenger can expect a surge for his own campaign coffers, as he is rapidly emerging as a favorite of conservatives across the country.
West has already been featured in Human Events and other conservative publications, gotten a boost from the right side of the blogosphere, and appeared on radio talk shows with Laura Ingraham and Michael Savage.
Considering that Florida's 22nd District is home to such media figures as Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh, it's likely West will get more national attention as the campaign progresses.
WEST'S FIRST exposure to the media spotlight in 2003 was the result of an assassination plot against him while he was serving with the Army's 4th Infantry Division in Iraq's Sunni Triangle.
According to National Review, West was interrogating a prisoner (an Iraqi policeman identified by military intelligence as part of the plot) and fired a pistol next to the prisoner's head. The prisoner confessed, giving up detailed information that helped foil a plot to ambush West's unit.
"If you're a bad guy, don't ever get between me and the safety and the lives of the American people," West says of the incident. "As a commander, your moral responsibility is to take care of your troops."
Two months later, however, the Army told West he had a choice: Retire or face a court-martial. West retired and moved to Florida, where he spent the next year teaching high school in Broward County.
It was while speaking at a local Republican Party event that West caught the attention of Florida political consultant Donna Brosemer, whose son had served in the military in Iraq.
After the 2006 GOP debacle, Brosemer -- who calls West an "inspirational" and "compelling" candidate -- got in touch with West by e-mail. By then, he was working as a civilian adviser to the Afghan army (he'd "kind of got the itch" for another taste of military life, he explains).
Brosemer convinced West he "had what it takes to make a run at Congress," and became his campaign manager after he agreed to run.
So far, West says, the campaign has gotten "an incredible response" from the district that stretches along the Atlantic coast north of Miami.
"It's not just with conservative Republicans, it's everybody, all across the district," West says. "People are hungry for someone who gets back to the basic conservative message."
AFTER HIS 51 percent win in the previously Republican district two years ago, Klein has accumulated a liberal record, scoring a zero rating in 2007 from the American Conservative Union.
Klein may also be vulnerable, Brosemer says, because voters in the district overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
About 12 percent of district's voters are Jewish, and many of those voters have responded warmly to the tough-on-terrorism message from West, who is staunchly pro-Israel.
"What we cannot lose our focus on is the enemy we need to be pursuing," West says. "We have to be able to identify the enemy, the radical Islamic ideology."
Many of the district's Jewish voters are "uncomfortable" with Obama, Brosemer says. While liberals might interpret that discomfort as racism, such an accusation can hardly be made against West, who is black.
Last month, after the Politico reported that Republicans were "heading into the 2008 election without a single minority candidate with a plausible chance of winning a campaign for the House, the Senate, or governor," West replied in a Human Events column, "That came as a particular surprise to me, since I am a conservative black Republican running for Congress in FL 22, with a good chance of winning."
WEST, WHO DISMISSES Obama as "an empty suit," normally doesn't raise the race issue himself, preferring instead to emphasize what he calls "American issues" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Riding the strength of that message, West says he's not intimidated by the Democrat's money advantage. "We don't need to match Ron Klein dollar for dollar," he says. "There's a difference between being a fundraiser and being a leader."
Reflecting on his own experience of being pushed out of the Army for doing what he felt necessary to protect his troops, West touches on the theme of character that is central to his campaign.
"In life, you're going to get knocked down," he says. "The measure of someone's character is what you do after you've been knocked down."
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