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Are Swing District Dems Toast?

Rep. Tom Perriello battles GOP cash, voter fatigue, and his own party's elites.

Perriello's positions have also earned him the attention of some well-heeled enemies. From the moment he settled into Washington, he was bombarded with attack ads. Americans for Responsible Health Care, a group funded by the wife of a retired Florida real estate developer, ran an ad blasting Perriello for voting "with the liberals in Washington" for a government "takeover" of health care. An outfit called Freedom's Defense Fund slammed him for supporting the stimulus. The National Republican Congressional Committee has bought time for ads tying him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Perriello anticipates that in the weeks before the election, corporate front groups will blitz his district with negative ads. The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, he notes, will render it even easier for outside organizations to pour money into the race.

But Perriello has been a hardy fundraiser, pocketing nearly $2.3 million as of the end of June. As he tours these towns, people comment on his campaign's first ad, a slapstick spot that shows him stepping into a cow pie, crawling under desks to lay broadband cable, breathing landfill exhaust, and getting covered with construction dust because "no one will work harder to bring jobs to Virginia." And the GOP's "out-of-touch liberal" line of attack may not work so well with a gun-rights advocate who's hailed the NRA as the "epitome of people-powered politics." A social-justice Catholic, Perriello backed the anti-abortion Stupak amendment during the health care reform debate. He occasionally drops a slightly drawled "you all" into conversation, telling one group of constituents, "You all have a blessed day."

The next day, Perriello's Main Street tours resume with a stop in down-on-its-luck Lawrenceville, where the mayor bemoans the closing of a nearby state prison—maybe, the mayor suggests, it could become a firing range. On the drive to the city of South Boston, Perriello passes by billboards defending the Confederate flag. Decades ago, there was massive resistance to desegregation in this area. More recently, the region's economic mainstays—tobacco, textiles, furniture-making—have collapsed. "A lot of elites in the Senate and the president's economic team think that we need to get back just to 2006 and we'll be fine," Perriello says. "But a lot of Americans need to get back 20 years or more, to when the middle class had purchasing power."

That afternoon, Perriello races two hours to Charlottesville, where he's the celebrity bartender at a fundraiser for groups working against sexual assault and domestic violence. As the congressman slings drinks in a trendy wine bar, he's gone from one political pole to another, from Red State land to Blue State land, all inside his district.

Several in the crowd are eager to talk politics. They know the GOP is gunning for Perriello, but hope he might benefit from the entry into the race of Jeffrey Clark, a tea party activist who's running as an independent and could siphon votes from Hurt. Standing near a painting of a woman reading the New York Times, John Hesslebart, a 66-year-old software designer, gushes about Perriello, predicting that he could become a major force in Congress—if he wins. But then, shaking his head slowly, he says the district "is like two different planets." He takes a sip of wine before adding, "And Tom needs to live in both places at once."

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