In North Carolina's southeast corner, a media-savvy congressional candidate has an unusual background that has gained national notice — he's a gung-ho former Marine officer who was once charged with premeditated murder after killing two unarmed Iraqi prisoners.
People still debate the innocence or guilt of Ilario Pantano, the Republican candidate. The Marine Corps dropped the charges after concluding there wasn't enough evidence to court-martial him. And yet his opponent, seven-term incumbent Democrat Mike McIntyre, has not made those charges an issue in the campaign.
Instead, the race has become a clear measure of anti-incumbent fervor and tea party clout this election season. On one side is the tea party-backed Pantano, channeling the issues and anger that dominate national news channels such as Fox and MSNBC. On the other is McIntyre, who has endorsements from a who's who of conservative groups and voted against nearly all the Democrat-backed bills that have inflamed conservatives.
The question is whether the district's voters still value McIntyre's focus on local needs, or whether they'll be going to the polls because of broad, national issues, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College.
"Pantano is representing the tea party movement and philosophy, and McIntyre represents that kind of mainstream House member who represents his district's interests," McLennan said. "McIntyre's whole campaign is based on 'Look what I've done for you over the past 14 years,' and Pantano is more interested in the whole philosophy of government."
Pantano's approach seems to be getting traction. Last week, a Raleigh group aligned with his limited-government views released a poll that showed the race a dead heat, with Pantano ahead among likely voters.
McIntyre can talk for hours about his efforts on subcommittees to bring fire engines to poor rural volunteer departments and funding for beach renourishment to keep tourist dollars flowing. Change whatever else you want in Washington, he said, but without key infrastructure, it's hard to bring new jobs to the district.
Pantano, meanwhile, focuses on cutting the size and influence of government and attacking Democratic legislation such as the health care overhaul. He also traveled to ground zero of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center to speak out against the Muslim community center planned for a site nearby.
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