Correction Appended: March 12, 2010
After the Pledge of Allegiance, the crowd prayed. They prayed for fiscal restraint, free markets and the strength to uphold constitutional principles.
And they prayed for the seven Republicans arrayed onstage, who had crammed into a high school auditorium recently in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to vie for the party's congressional nomination in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District.
The district's current lawmaker, freshman Democrat Tom Perriello, had squeaked into office by 727 votes in 2008 the narrowest margin nationwide and so the crowd sensed opportunity. They began arriving an hour in advance, donning T-shirts touting their chosen candidates, unfurling banners and stacking campaign literature on plastic tables. Grandparents hobnobbed and hoisted signs; teens twirled "Don't Tread on Me" flags.
"Who's looking for a leader?" boomed Mark Lloyd, chairman of the Lynchburg Tea Party, which organized the debate. A smattering of hands shot up. "You're wrong," Lloyd told them. "If you're looking for a leader, look in the mirror. These people are not here to be your leader. This is a job application, and you are the boss."
The race in Virginia's Fifth Congressional District is shaping up to be like many races in 2010: marked by uncommon passion. Seven Republicans are running for the chance to unseat Perriello. Nearly all of them are unburdened by the baggage of a political past, enlivened by a wheezing economy, buoyed by the Tea Party movement and incensed by Washington's profligacy. They are targeting the 56% of Americans who believe the federal government poses an immediate threat to their freedom, according to a recent CNN poll, and tapping into renewed fears about the country's direction. If Republicans can harness that passion, 2010 is likely to be good for the GOP. But if the party mishandles it, the excitement could backfire.
With the primary still three months away, the hopefuls in the district include a state senator, a county supervisor, a former naval officer, three businessmen and a biology teacher. On a recent Saturday night, they faced questions from their would-be bosses. Who posed the gravest threat to America's national security? "The present Administration," said Jim McKelvey, a Franklin County real estate developer who ponied up $500,000 to jump-start his campaign. (Another candidate, Laurence Verga, suggested "the people that voted the current Administration in.") Instead of jousting over policy, the seven hopefuls served up a buffet of popular items pledging to slash taxes, confront Iran, try terrorists at Gitmo and close the borders. From the reaction of the raucous crowd, the candidates have their ears close to the ground. "I look where our government, both Republicans and this Administration, has taken us, and I see us at the abyss," says Kurt Feigel, a Web designer and Tea Party activist.