MACON, Ga. ' Rep. Jim Marshall is no stranger to tough elections. The Democrat has already won two with just 51 percent of the vote.
So perhaps the calm demeanor that he exuded last week just hours before a crucial debate with his Republican challenger, state Rep. Austin Scott, wasn't an act.
As the Scott camp was busy prepping for the evening's showdown, Marshall seemed content to shoot pool in his campaign office and talk about the old Volkswagen Beetles that he restored in his younger days.
The interview took place less than a day after Marshall performed something of a campaign overhaul by announcing he would not support Rep. Nancy Pelosi for another term as Speaker.
Despite voting for her twice before, Marshall said he never thought the California Democrat was the right person to lead the party in the House.
Marshall supporters say the move is an example of the Congressman's ability to be an independent voice for his conservative central Georgia district, but it's not hard to read the move as a sign that Republican attempts to tie the two Democrats together were working.
Marshall said he thinks he has neutralized the Pelosi attacks by clarifying where he stands on the Speaker.
But try to tell that to the Scott supporters who showed up to last week's debate with signs that read, 'Marshall = Pelosi, Nuff said.'
Eva Cogar, who works as a nurse in Warner Robins, carried one of those signs. She said Marshall's tough new stance on Pelosi is little more than a deathbed conversion by a Congressman who has found himself trailing in the polls.
'He's said everything except, 'If you re-elect me, I'll be a Republican,'' Cogar said. 'And if he thought that would get him elected, I think he'd say that, too.'
Perennial Tough Target
Ever since he won his 2002 race by about 1,500 votes, Marshall has been something of a white whale for Republicans.
After the former Macon mayor and law school professor cruised to victory in a 2004 rematch of the previous race, Republicans targeted Marshall in a rare mid-decade redistricting effort that made his district even more hospitable for the GOP in 2006. But the effort didn't pay off. Marshall went on to win by about 1,800 votes in a year that saw a national Democratic wave sweep Republicans out of power in the House and Senate.
Last cycle, Republicans enticed highly touted retired Air Force Gen. Rick Goddard to take on Marshall. But the Congressman was buoyed by another strong national environment for Democrats and won comfortably as national Republicans were too busy playing defense elsewhere to target the district.
[IMGCAP(1)]But this cycle Republicans think all the pieces are finally in place: Marshall is running in his redrawn district in a very Republican-friendly national environment against a highly touted challenger.
Scott, who was elected to the Georgia House in 1996, decided late in the cycle to drop his gubernatorial ambitions and challenge Marshall. He used his connections around the state to quickly raise money and has succeeded in outraising the incumbent in the two quarters that he has been in the race.
Scott has an intense style and isn't afraid of a fight. The feisty young lawmaker proved that a decade ago when, at age 31, he risked his political career by becoming the first Republican to support the Democratic-led effort to change the state flag.
Before getting into politics, Scott began his career by opening an independent insurance brokerage firm in Tifton, where one of his early clients was Bill Davis, who owns the Smokehouse restaurant as well as two car dealerships in central Georgia.
Davis said Scott has long reminded him of another insurance agent-turned-Congressman, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
'Austin Scott and Jack Kingston are businessmen,' Davis said. 'They've had to work for a living. They've had to make a payroll. They aren't lawyers.'
He said he knows Scott to be a 'good, honest, God-fearing person.'
If Scott's goal is to position himself as a fresh conservative voice for the 8th district, Marshall's goal has been to paint him as a GOP loyalist who lacks experience and is too caught up in partisan politics to be an independent voice for middle Georgia. Marshall clearly wants to be seen as the thoughtful statesman who has the connections and know-how to best help his constituents.
Democrats are also working to foster the notion that there's a darker side to Scott's personality. His 10-year-old divorce records have become a subject of keen interest ever since a Democratic activist filed a motion earlier this month asking that they be unsealed. A state Superior Court judge has scheduled a hearing on the motion next week.
Marshall has said he had no part in making the divorce a campaign issue, but he said before last week's debate that now that the divorce has come up, the public has a right to know what's in the sealed documents.
'I've heard consistent allegations of what's in there, and it's not pretty stuff,' Marshall said. 'There are things that go on in marriages that can shed light on the character of the individual.'
'Not One of These Nut Cases'
While polling on the race is mixed, the amount of money being invested is a sure sign that this district is very much in play.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $320,000 in the race, and conservative outside groups are also smelling blood. The third-party group American Future Fund has spent more than $350,000 on the race, while another group, the Center for Individual Freedom, went up with a five-figure ad buy this week. Americans for Tax Reform has also dropped money in the district against Marshall. One third-party group supporting Marshall is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been much maligned by national Democratic leaders for supporting mostly Republicans.
As they did just before the 2008 elections with his vote for the Wall Street bailout bill, Republicans are painting Marshall's vote for the stimulus bill this cycle as a sign that he is in the pocket of his party leadership when they need him.
At last week's debate, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity sent a pair of employees to hand out leaflets that discussed Marshall's support of 'Nancy Pelosi's failed, wasteful spending.'
At a breakfast meeting hosted by the local Farm Bureau in Wilcox County, Marshall acknowledged that even he can't keep up with all the attacks that are being run against him.
'I can't be running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to respond to all this different stuff. I just need to stay steady,' Marshall said. 'Hopefully people know who I am, what I stand for, that I am not one of these nut cases on both sides.'
Marshall was the first Member in 2008 to release a commercial explaining to voters that while he didn't like the bank bailout bill, he thought it was necessary. He's taking the same approach on the stimulus bill.
Marshall told the farm group that if Congress had not passed the stimulus, the country's gross domestic product would be 11.5 percent lower than what it is today and that about 8.5 million more people would be out of work.
'Most folks don't understand that, and they're mad that we had to do it, and I'm mad that we had to do it,' Marshall said. 'But we had to do it, and I'll take my licks, but I'm not going to back off and not do what needs to be done.'
In the end, the race will likely come down to whether voters believe Marshall's middle path has been an effective one.
'These so-called Blue Dog [Democrats] haven't had any influence,' said Warner Robins resident and Air Force veteran Bill Thornton. Marshall is 'a nice guy, but he's been quiet too long. I don't think he has any power or influence in his party.'
Rochelle resident Pete Peebles, who works in the timber business, described Marshall as a 'practical, commonsense Congressman.'
Peebles said he is certainly concerned about government spending.
'My granddad said, 'You can't drink yourself sober, you can't spend yourself rich and you can't borrow yourself out of debt,'' he said.
But Peebles thinks Marshall has taken a stand on the health care reform bill and other pieces of legislation that have unnecessarily increased government spending.
'It's not his fault it's going the wrong way,' Peebles said.