When I spent a day with Dr. Steve Blythe last winter, his campaign for the U.S. House seemed a very long shot indeed.
Blythe, a 56-year-old family doctor in Melbourne, had never run for public office before. His campaign coffers were pathetically small. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wouldn't even return his calls.
But now Blythe's race doesn't look quite so quixotic.
On Tuesday, he won the Democratic primary in Florida's 15th Congressional District, beating his opponent nearly 2-1. And while Blythe found that the economy was No. 1 on voters' minds, voters were also drawn to a key plank in his platform — health care for all Americans, regardless of ability to pay.
"When I talk to people,'' Blythe says, "almost everybody knows a friend or relative who has trouble getting health care.''
The statistics are alarming. Approximately 42 percent of Americans ages 19 to 64 — 75-million adults — were either underinsured or had no health insurance last year, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that promotes health care reform. High out-of-pocket costs can bankrupt even middle-class Americans and discourage people from seeking early treatment for preventable or curable illnesses, leading to far greater costs later on.
Both presidential candidates advocate "affordable health care'' for everyone, but their approaches differ. Republican Sen. John McCain proposes tax credits to offer choices besides employer-based insurance. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama would provide federal subsidies to those with low incomes.
Blythe doesn't think either plan goes nearly far enough. Years ago, while he practiced in a clinic in Maine, the Canadian government paid him to treat patients from a nearby province. All they had to do was show their Canadian IDs. All Blythe had to do was give the government the date and type of service. Payment arrived about a month later.
"It didn't have all the intricacies of U.S. medicine,'' he says. "Canadian patients were covered 100 percent of the time.''
The arguments against a Canadian-style, single-payer system are many and sometimes emotional: Canada, Britain and other countries with universal health care have some of the world's highest taxes. People can't choose their own doctors. The wait for tests can be long. And it is "socialized medicine,'' at odds with America's free-market, capitalist system.
Blythe counters this way: "I'm not sure how the free market system can be expected to provide a very expensive service to 47-million people who can't afford insurance.''
Health care isn't Blythe's only issue. He is for abortion rights, opposes off-shore oil drilling and thinks the Iraq war was a huge mistake. His Web site (www.blythe2008.com) has a counter showing that the war already has cost Florida taxpayers $36-billion, enough to provide one year of health care for nearly 13-million people.
Blythe easily won his primary against Paul Rancatore, an American Airlines pilot who at one point dropped out of the race to care for his cancer-stricken mother. (Rancatore said that one reason he decided to get back in was that he realized "how seriously the health care crisis affects us all.'')
A far tougher fight looms in November. Blythe had hoped to face longtime Republican incumbent David Weldon in a contest that would have pitted two physicians with diametrically opposing views. But Weldon, an internist who is against abortion and universal health care, decided not to seek re-election.
So now the GOP candidate is state Sen. Bill Posey, a Rockledge real estate agent who has won kudos for his legislative handling of property insurance issues. In the largely Republican 15th District bordering the Kennedy Space Center, Posey has raised more than $560,000 — 10 times as much as Blythe.
But Blythe is counting on his army of volunteers, including many of his own patients. And he still hopes for support from his own party.
"I know they're busy this week,'' he said as Democrats left their national convention in Denver. "But an acknowledgement of my existence would be a pleasant thing.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.