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Obama insult could reverberate next month

Republican Joe Wilson may face the toughest election fight of his career after shouting "You lie" during President Barack Obama's health care reform speech to Congress.

world Updated: Sep 20, 2009 21:07 IST

Republican Joe Wilson may face the toughest election fight of his career after shouting "You lie" during President Barack Obama's health care reform speech to Congress.

Voters often frown on rude conduct, and Democrats would like nothing more to have Wilson's scalp in 2010, not just to win another seat, but to hold up the victory as evidence that even the conservative South rejects the vitriol that Obama is facing.

Of course, a decisive Wilson victory could also show the opposite: that voters in this South Carolina district are angry over Obama's policies and support Wilson's message, if not his style.

In recent elections, rude conduct has contributed to the defeat of both conservative and liberal lawmakers in the South. Senator George Allen of Virginia, a conservative darling who suffered a surprise defeat in 2006 after calling an Indian-American campaign worker "macaca", an ethnic slur in some countries. Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, a liberal, was tossed out of office the same year after striking a police officer who tried to make her show identification before entering the Capitol complex.

What's clear is that Wilson's race will be one of the most closely watched of the midterm cycle, with money now gushing in from all over the country. The normally low-key Wilson will be in the spotlight like never before.

"It's actually boosted Joe's popularity among folks who agree with him," said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University. But Vinson said it could cause problems for Wilson with voters who are transplants to South Carolina.

"This particularly will stick in their minds because they're still talking to friends and family who live elsewhere, and for them, this has been an embarrassment," she said. About a quarter of Wilson's constituents are African-Americans, a voting bloc that has overwhelmingly supported Obama and is not likely to approve of his insult.

A little-known backbencher until recently, Wilson has generally had an easy time winning re-election. But there was evidence that he might be a rare Southern Republican vulnerable to defeat even before he became a household name for yelling "You lie" during Obama's speech to Congress.

His victory last November with 54 percent of the vote over first-time Democratic candidate Rob Miller raised red flags. While the 8 percentage-point margin over Miller was still significant in an unusually pro-Democratic election environment, Wilson's tally was far weaker than the 60 percent to 70 percent showings that Republicans routinely post in the South. And Wilson's election results over the last four cycles show a consistent downward trend, from 84 percent in 2002 to 63 percent in 2006 and a low point last year.

His district stretches from Columbia, near the center of the state, toward the coast, enveloping Hilton Head Island and Beaufort, areas densely populated with northern retirees. It encompasses wide economic contrasts. Allendale County traditionally registers the state's top jobless rate, 21.8 percent in August, while Lexington and Beaufort counties are among the most affluent. It is also home to large military installations such as the Army's Fort Jackson and the Marine Corps' Parris Island Training Depot.

Some statewide Democratic candidates have carried the district in recent years, but it hasn't been represented by a Democrat in Congress since 1965.

Wilson's likely 2010 opponent will again be Miller, a former Marine captain who served two tours in Iraq and resigned his commission to run last cycle.

Miller, who enlisted in the Marines after college, now lives in Beaufort and runs a small business that sells Marine-oriented gifts and souvenirs near Parris Island. He calls himself a "pro-gun, pro-military Carolina Democrat," running on priorities of improving the economy and balancing the budget.

His performance last year can be seen in two ways. Democrats argue it was impressive, considering Wilson's huge fundraising advantage and eight years of incumbency. Wilson spent $1.3 million on the race; Miller spent less than half that. They say Wilson has done little to make himself known to voters, and they're hoping his presidential insult will leave a lasting negative impression.

Republicans, meanwhile, point out that the results mirrored almost identically the presidential outcome in the district, and that Miller did as well as he did only because of Obama's coattails and the strongly anti-Republican mood at the time. The 2010 election will largely be a referendum on the Obama administration, and that doesn't bode well for Miller, they argue.

For now, both campaigns are getting strong signals of support, they raised an astonishing $1.5 million apiece in the week after the incident, and the checks are still flowing.

With Miller in a position to buy heavy television and radio advertising, Wilson knows he has a fight on his hands. He said he decided this week to open his campaign office and hire a full-time campaign director, some six months before he had initially planned.

"We will take nothing for granted," he said.