From the harsh tone of a congressional race in Alabama, it might be hard to believe the candidates are deacons at the same Baptist church.
Democrat Bobby Bright and Republican Jay Love are campaigning hard for an open seat in Congress to represent the rural 2nd District in Alabama — a seat Democrats have not won since 1962.
"This is the best chance the Democrats have had in many years to take that seat," said William Stewart, a longtime political observer in the state and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama.
Despite their hopes for Bright — who has not endorsed Barack Obama for president and is a self-described fiscal conservative — both Stewart and strong Obama supporters such as Democratic Rep. Artur Davis do not expect Bright's possible success to translate to a win at the top of the ticket.
Davis, a three-term congressman in Alabama's heavily Democratic 7th District who gave a seconding speech placing Obama's name in nomination at the Democratic National Convention, knows the Illinois senator faces stiff odds in Alabama.
According to the Rasmussen Reports Alabama poll released Wednesday, Republican presidential nominee John McCain leads Obama, 60%-39%.
The last Democrat to claim Alabama in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976 with 56% of the state's vote, according to the secretary of State's records. Ronald Reagan edged Carter in 1980 — 48.75%-47.45% — those records show. In 2000, George W. Bush claimed 56.5% of the state's vote. In his re-election campaign in 2004, he improved to 62.5%.
Davis says he thinks Obama's presence on the ticket may push a lot of people to register to vote and help other Democrats down the ballot, including Bright.
Love and other Republicans have called Bright a liberal, blaming the three-term mayor of Montgomery for the city's 10% sales tax. Democrats have attacked Love for being cozy with big oil as a state lawmaker and for not providing health insurance to employees of the 16 fast-food restaurants he owned.
Both candidates claim they are conservatives, but Love and retiring Republican Rep. Terry Everett have attacked Bright for taking money from national Democrats, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Charles Rangel of New York.
Love reminds voters, in person and in his commercials, that Bright has taken money from those Democrats and will be on a ticket with Obama.
In his ads, Bright proclaims he is pro-military and opposes gun control and abortion rights. He has told citizens in Montgomery to purchase firearms, learn how to use them and do so when necessary.
It's a matter of survival for Democrats in Alabama to present themselves as conservatives, Stewart said, because that is how the white electorate in the state identifies itself. The white electorate accounts for 68% of registered voters in Alabama, according to the secretary of State's records.
Joyce Smith, a business owner in Prattville, considers herself a staunch Republican. She doesn't remember ever voting for a Democrat but plans to vote for Bright in November. She has "I'm a Bright Republican" signs lining the street in front of the assisted-living facility she owns in Prattville, a growing community just north of Montgomery.
Smith, a supporter of the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket, said her Bright signs have been kicked down, she's been told she would have to find new friends and she's received "severe lectures."
Betty Maurer, 69, a retired legal secretary in Montgomery, considers herself a lifelong Republican. She would put bumper stickers on her car and pray for Republicans, but she never volunteered to help a political candidate until this year. She felt compelled to call Love's campaign and offer her help.
"This is most unusual for me to be this involved in (a) campaign. I have never known anyone I was that excited about before Jay Love began to run for office," Maurer said.
Bright says his ideal candidate for speaker of the House would be a "conservative Blue Dog Democrat."
The Blue Dog Democrats are a group of 49 fiscally conservative House members who have endorsed Bright and another Democrat running for an open Alabama seat, retired doctor and freshman state Sen. Parker Griffith. Griffith is opposed by Republican businessman Wayne Parker for the 5th District seat held by retiring Democratic Rep. Bud Cramer.
During a recent trip to Alabama, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said those two districts in Alabama are among the top 10 the NRCC wants to win. Cole said the party must "guard against complacency." Democrats are trying to "poach" the traditionally Republican 2nd District seat, he said.
Love was not an early McCain supporter. He backed former Republican senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee and was later selected as a delegate for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Alabama primary. He says he completely supports his party's nominee, and his campaign touted that he was the first candidate in the nation to feature vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in an ad.
In not disclosing his choice for president, Bright said he believes in the "sanctity of the private ballot" and will not burn a bridge with either candidate before he gets to work with him.
Love says "no conservative would vote for Barack Obama" or accept money from Pelosi.
Kitchen reports for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.