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At Henrico County's Republican headquarters, Rep. Eric Cantor was rallying the troops.
"Our job is to exceed all records get the turnout revved up here," Cantor recently told a crowd of volunteers, mostly college students there to knock on doors and make phone calls.
"You're going to help save our country," Cantor told them. Pepping up the volunteers is something a lot of candidates do this time of year. But most don't have a national NBC-TV crew waiting to interview them.
Cantor, as House Majority Leader, is one of the most high-profile Republicans in Congress. Democrats revile him as the man who has helped make the Republican House a thorn in President Barack Obama's side. Republicans love him for the same reason.
In years past, Democrats haven't mounted much of a challenge to him at home in Virginia's heavily Republican 7th District. For the past three elections, Democratic challengers have gotten 34 to 37 percent of the vote. Cantor's lowest winning margin came two years ago, with a solid 59 percent.
Armed with a well-stocked campaign fund and a national bully pulpit, Cantor's re-election campaigns haven't been difficult. It's been years since Cantor has debated an opponent or needed to run negative TV ads.
That changed this year.
Cantor is being challenged by Wayne Powell, a Richmond attorney and retired Army colonel. Whether Powell has a better chance at ousting Cantor than his predecessors remains to be seen, but he's certainly more vocal. Powell hired campaign strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders--who worked with Sen. Mark Warner and on John Edwards' presidential campaign--to shape his strategy.
And that strategy is, in a nutshell, to go for the jugular.
On the stump and on national radio and TV shows, Powell and Saunders have described Cantor as a power-hungry corporate sellout. Powell's campaign signs include "For Sale" signs with Cantor's office number on them and media ads portray him as more interested in what happens in Washington than in the 7th District.
Powell's supporters call him passionate. Cantor's campaign calls him "relentlessly negative," and says Powell's combative style isn't right for the district.
In return, Cantor's campaign has circulated a Virginia bar complaint against Powell, who is an attorney, over Powell's conduct in a 2009 case in which he represented six employees of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Powell says the complaint was "baseless" and filed by a former Republican congressional staffer. He fired back this week with an accusation that Cantor still had ties to his family law firm, and that the firm had a no-bid contract as a debt collector for Henrico County.
Cantor's campaign said Cantor divested himself of an interest in the law firm, as required, when elected to Congress in 2000. There's a note saying so in his annual financial report because he didn't take cash from his family.
Both sides have launched negative ads. Cantor says Powell wants to raise taxes and spend taxpayer money on campaigns. Powell accuses Cantor of interfering in women's health care decisions.
Their single debate was contentious. Powell went after Cantor's corporate campaign donations, lack of military service and opposition to taxes, while Cantor said Powell is full of complaints but short of solutions beyond tax increases.
ANSWERING THE CHALLENGE
Cantor's group arrived at the Henrico GOP office in two big, black SUVs, with sub sandwiches to feed the volunteers.
He told them Northern Virginia is "challenging for Republicans" so it's critical to run up the Republican votes in the 7th District.
"Virginia is going to be Mitt Romney country," Cantor said.
As House Majority Leader, Cantor is not just campaigning for himself. He's a cheerleader for all Republicans.
And he is one of the most visible nemeses of the Obama administration. House Republicans, for example, have passed legislation numerous times to overturn the Affordable Care Act, what they call Obamacare.
Cantor is a regular critic of the "sequestration" cuts that now loom over the federal budget (and which he initially voted for, as part of a bipartisan debt deal that has now fallen apart). He opposes regulations coming out of the Obama administration on everything from environmental mandates to red tape that Cantor says hurts small businesses.
Cantor's campaign speeches focus on how Republican initiatives are continually stalled in the Democratic Senate. They aren't just re-elect Cantor talks, but appeals to elect more Republicans.
While Democrats accuse Cantor and House Republicans of blocking progress, Cantor says it's Democrats who resist compromise.
"We have consistently [offered] to sit down and try to resolve problems," Cantor said.
His message is clear: Cantor believes Republicans can do a better job at sparking the economy, by making life easier on business owners. That includes lowering taxes on businesses, resisting Democratic calls to raise taxes on the wealthy.
He calls this presidential race "the most consequential election in recent memory" and says he's confident that Republican strongholds like the 7th District will help put Virginia in Romney's column on Election Day.
TAKING ON DYSFUNCTION IN D.C.
Cantor's fight for Republican values in Washington come across to Democrats as obstructionist and as an effort to see Obama fail.
That belief powered Powell's decision to make his first run for elected office. He's frustrated with Congress' unwillingness to compromise and inability to get things done. He blames Cantor for promoting such an environment.
"We've got this dysfunctional group that's totally dedicated to this social agenda and willing to let this country dissolve," Powell said in an August interview. "Eric Cantor symbolizes a lot of the dysfunction."
Powell had hoped that national Democrats would back his candidacy as a chance to blacken Cantor's eye, but financial support from national party committees hasn't been there--his financial reports list one party donation, from the Hanover County Democratic Committee. Powell has loaned about $184,000 to his own campaign, and raised about $575,000 as of mid-October.
Cantor has a much fatter campaign account--$1.7 million cash on hand as of mid-October.
With no national backing, Powell and Saunders have tried to draw attention to the campaign in other ways.
Recently they launched a daylong tour of the district with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, his son and their band. Saunders, a personal friend of the Stanleys, had invited them from their home in Southwest Virginia's 9th District to what the Powell campaign called an old-fashioned barnstorm tour.
The point, said campaign aides, was to show Powell as a man of the people, touring the rural areas of the district to ask for votes. Cantor, Powell said, is rarely seen there, spending more time fundraising in other states than talking to constituents at home.
Taking the stage at various stops with Stanley, Powell delivered his stump speech, criticizing Cantor's campaign donations from the oil, pharmaceutical and other big industries, and said his opponent is more interested in power than in his constituents. "He sells his vote," Powell said. "Which means he sells out places like Louisa."
Being a populist also is part of his approach. Powell says the middle class is bearing a greater burden of taxation while Republicans won't consider increasing taxes on the top 1 percent of earners.
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
The 7th was redrawn last year as part of the once-a-decade post-census redistricting. It still has Culpeper, Orange and Louisa, and now all of Spotsylvania County.
The election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.