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Rookie U.S. Rep. Allen West taking bulldog's approach

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Allen West recoils at the word.

"I am not a freshman," the Florida lawmaker says. "I turned 50 yesterday. I spent 22 years in the United States military. I led troops in combat."

Only a month on the job, West is bucking the seen-not-heard advice given to new lawmakers. He is taking a bulldog approach, barreling to the top of political insiders' lists of the most vulnerable members of Congress. A complex figure, West is:

• A Republican who joined both the liberal Congressional Black Caucus and the rigidly conservative tea party caucus.

• A sharp-talker who rebuked the first elected Muslim lawmaker in Congress and accused his own party leaders of not working hard enough, not cutting the budget deep enough.

• A retired Army colonel with credentials to land an appearance on Meet the Press and regular spots on other national TV shows.

• A provocative speaker who on Saturday delivered the closing speech at a major gathering of conservative activists in Washington, a slot that had been Sarah Palin's before she canceled.

"We welcome the beliefs of others in America, but our co-existence must be based on a simple premise: When tolerance becomes a one-way street, it leads to cultural suicide. An American cultural value shall never be subjugated to any other as long as I have air in my lungs," West said, stirring thousands to their feet at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

It was 25 minutes of red meat, accusing China of using capitalism "as a weapon against us," pillorying "liberal progressivism," and saying the country needs to reclaim its Judeo-Christian values.

"I have goose bumps," Jane Lawler-Savitske, a 63-year-old tea party follower from Springfield, Va., said after the speech.

One-on-one, West seems detached from the wild campaign persona, the man who spewed invective toward President Barack Obama and "liberals," draped himself in tea party yellow, covered his flat top in a red-white-and-blue bandana, the YouTube sensation.

In white shirtsleeves and with bookish round glasses, West looks like a middle manager — except for the camouflage bag he carries instead of a briefcase. He barely gets animated during a 30-minute interview in his hyper-organized, seventh-floor office, which by coincidence is next to one held by the man who headed the 2010 Democratic campaign effort, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

"There's some kind of crazy, mythical perspective of who I am out there," West said, insisting he is not a "radical right-wing nut" but "rational, kind of intelligent." To prove a point, he quotes Nietzsche.

• • •

West arrived in Washington after defeating two-term Democrat Ron Klein, who argued that his opponent's views were out of step with the 22nd Congressional District, a span of mostly white and fairly affluent voters that runs from north Palm Beach County to Fort Lauderdale in Broward County.

In normal times, West likely would not be able to get elected. The district is nearly divided politically, favoring a moderate. (He failed two years earlier.) But in 2010, the economy was hurting and the president was fairly unpopular. Conservative politics were on the rise, and West had a fitting less-government, less-Obama message that he delivered in aggressive tones.

"If we sit complacent and if we don't pay attention to what's going on right now, we will find ourselves once again becoming slaves to a tyrannical government," he said at a tea party rally. "You cannot stand down. You cannot stop being vigilant. And just as this T-shirt says … we must tell this government, 'Don't tread on me.' "

Before he even took office, West was ensnared in controversy. He picked as his chief of staff a conservative radio talk show host with no experience. Critics circulated comments Joyce Kaufman made at a tea party rally that implied violence was justified against the government. "If ballots don't work," she said, "bullets will."

Kaufman was replaced with a Capitol Hill veteran, but West kept pushing. When the new Republican leaders of the House announced a work schedule that had members back in their districts more often, he complained to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, "an unusual power play move by a freshman," as the Capitol newspaper the Hill put it.

"The American people are depending upon us to be up here and doing the business of righting the ship," he said.

He was also among freshman Republicans who criticized their leaders' budget-cutting effort, which initially fell far short of the $100 billion promised on the campaign trail. "You start to look like a back-tracker," West said.

The pressure caused budget officials to take another look, and gave weight to the 87 new Republican members. West seems determined to emerge as a voice for the group.

In January, West drew fire for saying that Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim member of Congress, "really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established." A group of religious leaders condemned West, who insisted he was referring to Ellison's support for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"One of the critical things that if we do not get beyond will end up destroying this country," West said, "is political correctness."

• • •

West's actions recall another tough-talking Florida politician who generated national media attention former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando. Grayson is West's complete opposite politically, but the men are remarkably similar in style.

But attention cuts both ways and Grayson is a cautionary tale. He became a villain for Republicans and was defeated in November after only one term.

Democrats have already run radio ads against West for his support of deep budget cuts.

West says he'll use the attention to rally supporters. His goal is to exceed the $6.5 million he raised for 2010, to make himself "so formidable that people will scratch their heads as far as whether they really want to jump into this race."

Klein has not ruled out a rematch: "His rhetoric has been so over-the-top. It's up to him to make his case to the public that he represents their interests."

Deerfield Beach Mayor Peggy Noland, a Democrat, said West has demonstrated that by reaching out to her and pledging to work on a sewer line issue. "I think he's going to be a worker," Noland said.

At the conservative conference Saturday, West sneered at those who say he could be headed for defeat in 2012.

"Standing here before each and every one of you," he said, "I don't feel so vulnerable."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

Watch West's speech

See video of Rep. Allen West speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference at links.tampabay.com.

Rookie U.S. Rep. Allen West taking bulldog's approach 02/13/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 13, 2011 11:27pm]

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