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Vote against the troop surge leaves congressman fighting for his job

WASHINGTON—Five weeks after Rep. Bob Inglis broke with his party and his president to vote against the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, the South Carolina Republican is engaged in an all-out effort to save his seat.

Inglis, one of 17 House Republicans who opposed the troop increase, is sending his constituents multiple mailings, calling local GOP activists, even posting an unusual video of himself explaining his vote on his congressional Web site.

Saying he feared the surge "would actually send the wrong message to the Iraqi leadership," Inglis explains that the United States should set deadlines for specific political goals such as sharing oil revenues among different sects and enshrining a commitment to religious pluralism in the new Iraqi constitution.

The Iraqis, he concludes, must "start taking responsibility for their country."

Inglis has good reason to do some serious damage control back home because of his opposition to sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq.

His 4th congressional district is among the most conservative in the country. His own county party chairman is encouraging Republicans to challenge Inglis in the June 2008 primary.

"Encourage" is not exactly how Rick Beltram, GOP chairman in Spartanburg County, the heart of the 4th District, puts it.

"I'm not going to discourage challenges" to Inglis, Beltram said. "Bob has stepped on a land mine that he didn't really need to."

Many of Inglis' GOP constituents have expressed their displeasure more bluntly.

"Mr. Inglis, I am outraged, embarrassed and ashamed at your vote today," Mark Sternick, a constituent, wrote in comments that Inglis has posted on his Web site.

"My son is serving in the Army in Iraq today," Sternick wrote. "With this vote, you might have just as well just put a bullet in his head and in his heart."

Tom Mims, a retired economic consultant who co-owns five car dealerships in Greenville, S.C., confronted Inglis last month during a "Let's Talk" lunch at Tommy's Ham House in the city.

"Are you on our side?" Mims shouted.

A little later, as he drove home from the lunch, Mims was stunned when Inglis called him on his cell phone. They talked for 50 minutes.

"I've put a lot of time and effort into helping Bob get elected," Mims said in a recent interview. "I'm just concerned about him. I think we all are. We don't know where he's headed. We want him to be conservative."

Inglis, 47, says he expected the firestorm over his vote on the U.S. troop surge in Iraq. By his estimate, sentiment in his district was 90-10 against his vote in the immediate aftermath, and has moved to 80-20 more recently.

"Don't be so sure that all of his constituents are for the (Bush) administration's program," said Jesse Helms Jr., a distant cousin of the former North Carolina senator by the same name. "A good number of us aren't. He has a responsibility to consider our views, too, plus he can't leave his conscience out of this. It took a lot of character and integrity for him to do this."

While 17 House Republicans voted against the U.S. troop increase, only seven others besides Inglis are from "red states" that Bush carried in 2004, possibly giving their votes greater political risk.

Republican Reps. Howard Coble and Walter Jones in neighboring North Carolina are also taking heat for having opposed the troop surge.

In Florida, Republican Rep. Ric Keller has drawn blistering criticism from conservative radio hosts for his vote against the troop increase. But his Orlando-based district along the I-4 corridor has more swing voters who might support his decision.

Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has faced less criticism because he is a maverick who has long been among the war's biggest critics.

Back in South Carolina, Inglis' reasons for voting against the troop increase in Iraq go well beyond his assessment of the war-torn country.

His motivation is tied broadly to his evolution as a politician, his views on Bush's presidency, his deep Presbyterian Christian faith and his dispiriting loss in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings in 1998.

That loss, which ended Inglis' first six-year stint in the House, led to a difficult three-year personal struggle from which he says he emerged humbler and less judgmental of his political foes.

"Scripture says God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble," Inglis said recently in the ornate President's Room of the U.S. Capitol.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and subsequent war on terror also influenced Inglis.

"A-Qaida, Hezbollah—those are our enemies," he said. "The Democrats are not my enemies. They're my countrymen."

Inglis graduated No. 1 in his undergraduate class at Duke University and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia. He is legendary among his peers for absorbing prodigious amounts of information on complex issues and for calling or meeting with many people while seeking different viewpoints before he decides how to vote.

"I don't necessarily agree with every vote Bob takes, but he is a very thoughtful and courageous legislator," said fellow South Carolina Republican Rep. Gresham Barrett. "He doesn't take anything lightly."


(McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters Barbara Barrett, Lesley Clark and Maria Recio contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BOB INGLIS