- The Washington Times - Monday, September 21, 2009

COLUMBIA, S.C. | Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, may have shouted his way into the toughest election fight of his life.

Just ask former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, a conservative who suffered a surprise defeat in 2006 after calling an Indian-American campaign worker “macaca” - an ethnic slur in some countries. Or former Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, who lost her re-election bid the same year after striking a police officer who tried to make her show identification before entering the Capitol complex.

Voters often frown on rude conduct, and Democrats would like nothing more to have Mr. Wilson’s seat.

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

What’s clear is that the race will be one of the most closely watched of the midterm cycle, with money gushing in from all over the country. The normally low-key Mr. 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 in South Carolina. But Ms. Vinson said it could cause problems for Mr. 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 Mr. Wilson’s constituents are blacks, a voting bloc that has overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama and is not likely to approve of his insult.

A little-known backbencher until recently, Mr. 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 the president’s speech to Congress about health care reform earlier this month.

His victory in November with 54 percent of the vote over first-time Democratic candidate Rob Miller raised red flags. While the 8 percentage-point margin over Mr. Miller was still significant in an unusually pro-Democratic election environment, Mr. Wilson’s tally was far weaker than the 60 percent to 70 percent showings that Republicans routinely post in the South. And Mr. Wilson’s election results over the past 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.

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

Mr. Miller, who enlisted in the Marines after college, 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.

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