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The old veteran and the new kid square off in a battle of generations and political styles.

It has become a familiar scene. Mark Sharpe is making a political appearance, and the adjacent corners are sprinkled with his volunteers holding signs and waving.

It used to be that Sam Gibbons didn't have to battle such street corner theatrics to win a trip back to the U.S. Congress. His campaign still doesn't do these things too well, but they are trying.

Friday, just before a noon appearance at the Tiger Bay Club, Sharpe has 12 or 13 sign wavers on the sidewalks approaching Harbour Island. Gibbons has managed to muster one unsmiling volunteer.

Inside the Wyndham Hotel, Sharpe is straight-backed, square-jawed and serious. He's surrounded by young men with blue blazers and cellular phones. He's talking about polls that show him slightly behind Gibbons but with a large group of voters still undecided.

"We're right where we wanted to be right now," says the 34-year-old teacher.

That means he's within striking distance in the polls and, unlike his race with Gibbons two years ago, he's being taken seriously by the press.

Sharpe is a Robin Hood Republican waging a guerrilla war against an old, and now very powerful, Democrat. In a country disillusioned with government, it's an appealing role. It brings out the volunteers.

So what if Gibbons has been a moderate and a maverick during his years in Washington? He's been there 32 years and in politics these days, that's enough of an indictment.

In person, Mark Sharpe is sincerity in a dark suit. Don't look for small talk from this former Navy officer. Sharpe is an issue guy.

"It's all about health care, taxes, the economy and reform of Congress," he says when asked how his campaign is going.

As politicians, Sharpe and Gibbons aren't on different pages. They are on different planets.

Tall, big shouldered and florid, Gibbons is a personable man. He smiles and grabs your hand, leaning close to share a story. Gibbons is not a hack and he knows his issues as well as anybody, but he doesn't feel the need to share them during each conversation.

With his back to his opponent, the Congressman is busy explaining to a smiling, older man which part of Virginia "the Gibbons family comes from." Then, he introduces Martha, his wife of 48 years.

She smiles, but moments later, she looks pained.

"I'm always nervous. Every time I get like this," she says.

It may happen every time, but it's obvious that this race, one that some think her husband could actually lose, has her especially edgy.

The hotel anteroom fills up quickly. Today's fashion accessory is a sticker _ blue and yellow for Sharpe, red and blue for Gibbons. Sharpe clearly has an edge in the sticker race.

There's nothing stuck to Roland Manteiga's white suit, but he doesn't hide his feelings. The veteran political columnist turns from a brief conversation with Sharpe and says, "This guy's a nice guy, but what's he ever done?"

Inside, Sharpe's speech is hard-edged and to the point. When it is his turn, Gibbons floats, making his points slowly, taking his time. To an observer, the battle between these two candidates looks and sounds like a feud between a scolding father and an outspoken, but deferential, son.

"I say with all due respect..." Sharpe intones, just before linking Gibbons to welfare moms, violent teenagers, Bill and Hillary and runaway socialism. Gibbons doesn't feel he needs to be nice to this upstart youngster. "When I was your age" Gibbons says, then fills in the blanks _ I had jumped into Normandy, started a family, earned a law degree, served in the state legislature, founded USF.

Sure, Sam has the credentials. So how come Sharpe has all the volunteers?

When you're in your 30s, the world can be black and white. In your 70s, it's all shades of gray. And in a political climate where slogans are peddled as solutions, gray is a hard sell.

"Well," says Gibbons, as his speech meanders to a close, "I guess my time up."

Maybe it is.

Paul Wilborn's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.