Can Heath Shuler Score?

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Democratic candidate for Congress Heath Shuler campaigns near Waynesville, N.C., in May.

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Democrat Heath Shuler is unlike any candidate that Republican Representative Charles Taylor has faced in the past. Shuler is not only young and dynamic, but he's a local boy who made good playing college and professional football as quarterback. But more than anything else, it's Shuler's rural background that makes him such a formidable challenger. During Taylor's 16 years representing the mountainous 11th congressional district in western North Carolina, he has won reelection by dominating the rural vote against candidates from the larger area cities like Asheville. But Shuler, like Taylor, is conservative on many social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage — so much so that Republicans originally tried to recruit him to run for office in Tennessee.

Maybe that's why one of Taylor's first commercials slyly tried to paint Shuler, 34, as being from out of state and not a local boy at all. Shuler did indeed play college and professional football across the border in Tennessee. But few in the mountain area seem to care about that distinction: they remember Shuler as the quarterback from Swain County High School. And it's certainly why national Democrats — including former North Carolina Senator and Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, who recently came to campaign with Shuler — think this is one seat they can win against an incumbent Republican. With the Iraq war and political scandals cutting into Taylor's popularity, Charlie Cook, publisher of the respected Cook Political Report, has called the race a "toss-up," when he had previously described it as "leaning Republican."

Now that Taylor, 65, faces such a tough fight, the race is getting predictably ugly. His campaign has mounted an attack ad campaign against Shuler, with the first volley fired over how Shuler failed to pay some $69,000 in taxes for a business he was involved in. "This is the same playbook the Republicans have used for years and no one takes it seriously anymore," says Andrew Whalen, Shuler's communication director. Whalen pointed to Taylor's own problems over taxes: widely believed to be the largest private landowner in western North Carolina, Taylor has had drawn-out legal battles with local government over his failure to pay certain property taxes.

At the national level, Democrats have launched a coordinated attack on Taylor for being more concerned with the interests of the G.O.P. and the White House than his home district. "Congressman Taylor has been a rubber stamp for the President and the Republican leadership and in many cases he has been out of touch with western North Carolina priorities," Sarah Feinberg, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told TIME. She pointed to his recent non-vote during the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Taylor had originally said he would vote against the free trade agreement with Central America — which Shuler's camp claims has cost the region jobs — but abstained when he said an electronic glitch prevented his vote from registering. "There have been few as important votes to western North Carolina as the vote on CAFTA and all of a sudden he can't find his voting card?" Feinberg said. "He's not thinking about western North Carolina, he's thinking about what the Republican leadership and the President want."

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