In N. Carolina, McHenry's style could play role in re-election bid

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 29, 2008 

SHELBY, N.C. — Michael Moore grew up during the Reagan era and wants Congress to support lower taxes, smaller government and conservative family values.

The former Navy man has a soft spot for veterans. But Moore decided he had to take a pass on Democrat Daniel Johnson, the injured Navy officer who was at an early voting site here asking for help in unseating Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from Cherryville.

"McHenry's doing a good job," says Moore, who lives in this Cleveland County community and chatted with Johnson on his way to vote on a chilly autumn morning last week. "He supports the values I have, the Christian conservative values."

That's the view McHenry is banking on as he seeks a third term representing the 10th Congressional District, a largely Republican area that includes Catawba, Cleveland, Lincoln and pieces of Gaston counties. The once plump textile and furniture industries here have shriveled amid global trade.

McHenry says he's aligned with the folks who live here, unwavering on core Republican beliefs like abortion and taxes, but in favor of more assistance for the jobless and against certain international trade deals.

"I've followed through on what I pledged four years ago, and two years ago, that I'd be a fighter for conservative change," he says. "I've been outspoken and a strong proponent of the district, and the shared conservative beliefs we've had."

That philosophy cuts both ways for McHenry, though. He's pushed away more than a few voters with a style some see as strident and partisan.

"For some reason, I don't like Patrick," says registered Republican Bobby Phillips of Hickory, a retired insurance agent from Hickory who voted Monday. "It bothers me, anybody who is so far one way."

Johnson, an attorney from Hickory, built his campaign hopes on voters like Phillips, who chose Republicans John McCain for president, Elizabeth Dole for Senate and Pat McCrory for governor, but crossed over to send a Democrat to the U.S. House.

"Daniel is a local boy, a Navy hero," says Phillips.

Johnson lost both legs when he rescued a fellow sailor from an entangled tugboat line in a 1999 accident at sea.

Though both candidates are talking issues – and they don't agree on many – the campaign focuses as much on their style. And Johnson, who wants to work on jobs, energy and health care, says McHenry can't be an effective advocate for his constituents if he doesn't work well with others in Washington.

"My opponent has demonstrated he's a highly partisan, strongly ideological politician," Johnson says. "My approach is far more pragmatic, someone who is willing to go to Washington and seek people out who want to work together and come up with solutions."

On Capitol Hill, McHenry is known as combative for doing more than his fair share to bring Democratic bills to a grinding halt. He's also hurt himself with gaffes.

Though the race hasn't gotten the full financial backing of national Democrats, a few members of Congress have given some help to Johnson, who's outraised McHenry in recent months, allowing the challenger to buy valuable TV ad time. McHenry was forced to make a $175,000 personal loan to his campaign.

Glenda and Harlan Moore, teachers who live in Iron Station, say they were upset by McHenry's infamous spring trip to Iraq, which turned into an embarrassing episode. McHenry referred to an officer who wouldn't let him into the U.S. embassy gym in Baghdad as "a two-bit security guard."

"He was a foreign contractor, and there's nothing new here," McHenry says of the incident in an interview at a coffee house in east Lincoln County. "I've got the highest respect for military men and women, always have always will…I absolutely regret the comment."

The Moores say they also didn't like the attack ad on Johnson, a former prosecutor who McHenry says was too soft on criminals.

"(Johnson) is a genuinely good person," says Glenda Moore. "He has our own best interests in mind."

McHenry doesn't seem worried. About 43 percent of voters are registered as Republicans, with 36 percent Democrats. He's won past general elections with well over 60 percent of the vote, and both internal and external polls show him up over Johnson by double-digit percentage points.McHenry has won the support of Chuck Tracy, a chemical salesman in Hickory, who says the incumbent is supportive of choices like Tracy's to home-school his three children, and he's visible in the district.

"He does a lot for this community," Tracy says.

On Election Day, the decision could come down to the thoughts of Dr. Bob Gossett, a surgeon in Shelby, who has mixed feelings about McHenry. He says he and McHenry share conservative views, but he wasn't happy when the lawmaker failed to support a medical reimbursement bill Gossett thinks would have helped his hospital.

"He's a plus-minus," Gossett says. After voting, Gossett wouldn't say if his ballot reflected the plus or the minus.

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