BOCA RATON, Fla. - Conservative Republican Adam Hasner and his wife are the youngest people in the room by at least 25 years. Late-morning light streams into the high-ceilinged cafeteria as Hasner takes the bingo microphone to introduce himself to the crowd.
"It's so great to be back here at the Mae Volen Center," he says to the 30 or so senior citizens slowly eating their Friday lunches from white plastic trays. A few look up at him, but most are very focused on their food.
"I'm a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in district 22," Hasner says.
He and his wife, Jillian, begin to work the room. Hasner, the 42-year-old former state Majority Leader, leans over to shake hands with seniors and asks their names and where they are from. An old woman tells him she's from New York City.
"I was born in Brooklyn," he tells her. Hasner, who is Jewish, stands up to his full height and yells, "Who's from Brooklyn?!"
"Brooklyn!" he bellows, like a latter-day Beastie Boy.
The crowd of senior citizens, some in their 90s, responds with a surprisingly resonant cheer. "Yay, Brooklyn," one old lady yells from a few tables away, her voice quavering. She begins to clap.
Another old woman replies to his borough invocation with one word: "Lundy's," a reference to a once-famous restaurant there.
"Lundy's! They had the best little rolls!" Hasner says with ebullience. He draws smiles from everyone who can hear him.
To know Adam Hasner is to like him. He's warm, he laughs easily and he charms, but not in the way of a slick, longtime politician - even though that's what he is. On the campaign trail, Hasner always seems more interested in the person he's talking to than himself. He appears knowledgeable on a huge variety of political issues and speaks intelligently about whatever is most important to each voter, from the state of Israel to the state of Florida State University's sports teams. He manages to connect with just about everyone he meets, even intensely partisan Democrats.
Indeed, if every voter could meet Hasner and his Democratic opponent, former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, who exudes a rough-hewn toughness in place of charm, he would easily win. But if every voter just saw each candidates' positions on the issues, Frankel would walk away with the race.
The newly configured 22nd district, adjusted during redistricting, runs along the east coast of Florida from Ft. Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Taking in parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties, it is indisputably Democratic territory that could easily give President Barack Obama more than a 10-point margin over Mitt Romney in November. It's so Democratic, in fact, that GOP Rep. Allen West, who currently represents the district, decided to seek re-election in a seat to the north of here with a more even partisan split.
West's move should have made Frankel, a former state legislator, a shoo-in for the seat. Frankel is a solid Democrat with legislative and executive experience whose fundraising quarters since she began her bid in March 2011 have been very impressive. In late July, she had $949,000 in the bank. But Hasner, coming off a failed bid for the GOP nomination for Senate, jumped in the race earlier this year. It was originally seen as something of a lark, a graceful exit to a statewide campaign that never took off.
Hasner, however, has been campaigning relentlessly, had more than a million dollars in cash on hand in late July and has powerful outside groups backing his bid. And now, both Democrats and Republicans in Florida view this race differently than they used to: as a true contest in which either candidate could win.
The 'Romney-Ryan-Hasner Budget'
Last week, in a stuffy meeting room in Plantation, a city of 87,000 that includes the district's southwestern terminus, Mitchell Ceasar is fired up.
"Democrats in the past were too slow to respond to attacks, too timid," says Ceasar, chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party. A lawn sign for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz leans against the wall behind him. "In this Democratic nominee, I can assure you, you have a fighter for day one, our next Congresswoman, Lois Frankel!"
The crowd of about 150 die-hard Democrats rises to their feet and gives her a loud cheer. "Lo-is, Lo-is, Lo-is," some people begin to chant.
In her underwhelming stump speech to the Broward Democratic Executive Committee, Frankel introduces herself, speaks briefly about her record and then launches into an attack on what she calls the "Romney-Ryan-Hasner budget." She competently hits all the standard Democratic talking points about the budget "ending Medicare as we know it" while giving "tax cuts to the very rich and the corporations that send jobs overseas."
Frankel, who is also Jewish, spends a chunk of time talking about women's health - she is in favor of abortion rights, Hasner is opposed. But the distillation of her speech is this: She's a solid liberal Democrat.
That message is probably enough to easily get her within a few, maybe one or two, points of victory, but not all the way to the 113th Congress.
Frankel has been in politics in this area long enough to have a reputation. She's been around so long, in fact, that her first legislative aide at the statehouse was Hasner's mother, a Democrat. To Frankel's allies, she was a strong voice for liberal policies in the state Legislature who became a business-friendly tough-as-nails urban mayor who helped turn West Palm Beach around. To her detractors, her less-than-warm personality overwhelms all her other attributes.
Like Democrats across the country, Frankel is expected to emphasize the budget blueprint authored by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (which Hasner supports), and its effect on Medicare, as well as women's health issues. And expect to see her use Hasner's own words against him. During his Senate campaign he tacked hard to the ideological right in an attempt to out-conservative the other candidates.
"Republicans don't need to be less partisan, Republicans need to be more principled," he often said on the Senate campaign trail.
Now, in an interview and on the House campaign trail, Hasner doesn't back away from his conservative values, but it's not what he emphasizes either.
Speaking to voters, he empathizes with their roiling dissatisfaction with Congress in a nonpartisan way. "Clearly Washington is broken and both parties are to blame," he tells an older woman sitting at the Kosher table in the senior center.
Going house-to-house on Saturday, he knocks on 75 doors, wins over some independent voters and hands out lots of campaign literature - that makes no mention of his party affiliation.
Hasner is expected to emphasize his likability, competence, intelligence and hard work.
Local Republicans are bullish on Hasner and give a window into how he'll knock Frankel.
"While his views are clear and conservative, he's never hostile. You don't come away insulted, even if you disagree," said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach Republican Party. "Lois prides herself on being the Don Rickles of politics," he said, referring to the infamously insulting comedian.
Interested Parties, Outside Money
If Hasner can make this a race about personalities, he's got a good shot. But if Frankel can burn in a message contrasting their positions on the big issues of day, it's hard to see how he pulls off a victory in this very Democratic bastion. A Democrat is simply a better fit for this district. Still, Hasner's religion will help him among Jewish voters, especially elderly ones. Hasner is the definite underdog here, but unlike in a lot of races, the underdog and his allies are very unlikely to be outspent.
Influential Republicans in Washington, D.C., have been watching this matchup closely. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who endorsed Hasner earlier this year, has taken a particular interest in the race. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the House, something a GOP victory here would change.
"It's a very winnable race. It's a Democratic district, but one that we can win. Hasner is an attractive candidate," said Brad Dayspring, a senior adviser to the YG Action Fund, a super PAC formed by former Cantor aides. That group has reserved more than $400,000 in the Palm Beach media market to support Hasner.
And, Dayspring said, the YG Action Fund "anticipates being more heavily in this race as times goes on."
Back in Boca Raton, Elaine DiPietro is sitting at a table in the back of the big room at the Mae Volen Senior Center folding paper napkins. She tells Hasner that he has her vote. About 20 percent of the 22nd is Hasner's old state House seat. DiPietro remembers Hasner from his earlier campaigns.
"I like him. He's charming. That's all," she says later in a friendly staccato. Then she launches into a lengthy denunciation of Mitt Romney.
Later that Friday, Geoff McKee, the tall, easygoing principal of the 3,000-student high school here, stands watching a pre-season football game. He is familiar with both candidates and has kind words for Hasner.
He talks about his charisma and likability. "People here know Adam," he says. "They like him."
"Frankel?" McKee says. He shrugs his shoulders and makes a sour face.