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Of all Democrats, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd should be safe, but he's not

Each morning as he heads out on the campaign trail, an increasingly bleak and hostile landscape, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd must ask himself, "Why me?"

Democrats are under siege everywhere, but during 14 years in office, Boyd has carved a profile as a conservative "Blue Dog," comfortable in an increasingly Republican North Florida. He has never faced a close election.

Last week, he got the endorsement of the NRA and before that, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. If anyone should feel at ease in this turbulent midterm election cycle, it is Boyd.

But he's not. The 65-year-old farmer and rifle platoon leader in Vietnam narrowly escaped a primary challenge and, polls suggest, is losing his grip on the Panhandle district — facing the double whammy of being a longtime incumbent and a Democrat during a weak economy.

"People are ready for change," said Devoe Moore, a Tallahassee businessman and registered Democrat who has supported Boyd in the past.

If Boyd falls — "We're going to win," he insists — it would strip away one of the last patches of Democratic blue in a part of Florida that more than two decades ago began to follow the rest of the South in the GOP's direction.

"Democrats have held seats like these on borrowed time," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "There's no question he's the underdog."

Boyd, from Monticello, is being challenged by Republican Steve Southerland, a Panama City funeral home operator who has assailed Boyd's votes for the health care bill and the economic stimulus. Boyd opposed earlier versions of both, saying they were too big, and he voted against the auto bailout, citing debt concerns.

It's the sort of line Boyd has walked throughout his career, trying to appeal to a constituency that may still register Democrat but tends to vote Republican. Boyd has opposed gun control, called for tough immigration measures and in 2005 proposed a bill that would have created private Social Security accounts, then a major initiative of President George W. Bush.

But as a new president occupies the White House, Boyd is being cast as a reliable Democratic vote. At every opportunity, Southerland tries to tie Boyd to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Boyd has countered with a series of hard-hitting TV commercials highlighting Southerland's failure to pay taxes on time (though the ad implied he failed to pay at all) and support for a tea party plan to repeal the 17th Amendment and allow state legislatures to pick U.S. senators, as well as a "Fair Tax" that would replace the income tax and others with a 23 percent national sales tax.

"Those are just poorly thought-out positions that Mr. Southerland has taken that are reflective of his inability to think through an issue," Boyd said, noting his opponent has softened his support for some of the ideas, including the Fair Tax.

Southerland's campaign did not make him available for an interview, but he is pitching himself as an average working man fed up with Washington spending and politics as usual.

"I believe that the federal government, like a raging river, has expanded upon the barriers and the boundaries of its banks and unfortunately it is flooding all of America with its encroachment," Southerland, 45, says in a video on his website.

A member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Boyd has taken in more than $2.3 million in campaign donations compared with Southerland's $834,000. He has far more cash on hand. But conservative groups such as the 60 Plus Association and Americans For Prosperity have greatly leveled the field by running TV ads against Boyd, primarily on health care and the stimulus.

The health care law has been Boyd's biggest problem. He voted against the first version that passed the House, contending it was too sweeping and costly. But he voted for the pared-down final version, a move defenders said showed principle but one that critics decry as a flip-flop.

What's worse, tacked onto the bill was a plan to revamp the student loan business. Sallie Mae, which operates a center near Panama City, said it would cost hundreds of jobs.

The National Republican Congressional Committee produced a TV ad that cast Boyd as a job-killer. Not said was that Boyd crafted an amendment, which failed, to remove the student loan provision. PolitiFact Florida ruled the ad Barely True.

The first signs of trouble came in summer 2009 when Congress returned home for town hall meetings on health care. Janet Olsen, a Democratic leader in Bay County, recalls standing in line for tickets a few days before a Boyd event and feeling the anger. It has only grown.

"There's a lot of animosity here," said Olsen.

"People have a hatred for Allen. They are so frustrated at what has happened in this country," said Dianne Berryhill, a registered Republican from Tallahassee who is running in the race as a candidate with no party affiliation.

"Allen is a nice man. He's the type of person you would go out and have a drink with," Berryhill added, saying she stopped distributing "Dump Boyd" bumper stickers because of the level of personal animosity toward him.

For his part, Boyd has tried to accentuate more popular aspects of the health care law, one allowing young adults to remain under their parents' insurance, and notes that the $787 billion stimulus was packed with tax cuts for all Americans. He is hoping voters see his experience as an asset, not a detriment — a herculean sell in 2010.

"You play the hand that's dealt, that's all I can say," Boyd said in an interview Monday. "I wake up and do my very best to try to serve the interests of my neighbors and my family and my friends. I think I've done a pretty good job of that."

Of all Democrats, U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd should be safe, but he's not 10/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 18, 2010 10:38pm]
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