After retiring from sports broadcasting in 2006, Harold Johnson suddenly found himself off the sports desk and on the sidelines as a spectator. No more highlight reels, no more television cameras and no more teleprompter.
In retirement, the four-time Emmy award winner grew restless as he watched Democrats in Washington exercise a grip on power through Congress and the White House. The former Marine spent his career in front of North Carolinians, but without an outlet to reach them, Johnson got the political itch and decided to come out of retirement to run for Congress.
"Leadership is void in Washington right now and it's making the entire country nervous," Johnson said in an interview with ABC News. "We have to get the confidence back again. Let America know, 'Look, we're behind you. We're going to be there to help get this engine moving again.'"
Johnson, who has never previously run for public office, is challenging freshman Democrat Rep. Larry Kissell, of Biscoe, N.C., and finds himself in one of this election cycle's most competitive House races. This week, election analysts moved the battle for 8th District of North Carolina from "toss-up" to "leans Republican."
"There's an arrogance in Washington right now that I've never ever seen," Johnson said. "Just look at the health care bill that was passed. Well over 50 percent of the American people said, 'No, we're happy with our health coverage.' Now we're finding out more and more about bill, and how catastrophic it's going to be to doctors.
"The America that I'm looking at now is vastly different than the one I served in when I was in the Marine Corps," Johnson said. "Opportunity right now, I think, is very limited by so much government control."
>Focus on the Private Sector
Johnson, who has a degree in economics from Lenoir Rhyne University in North Carolina, says if he is elected his highest legislative priorities would be to create jobs by slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent down to 25 percent, making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent, and cutting down on regulations that he says are hampering American businesses today.
"We need to get back to basics of freeing up people that do what they do," Johnson said, "and that is that the private sector has got to get back involved in promoting the growth of this country, and that's the only place it's going to come from. Government doesn't create jobs.
"We're not moving in the direction of what we need to do, and that is get America back working and get the ... small-business owner back to what he or she does, and that is create jobs," he added. "To me, it's not that hard to understand."
Kissell and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have criticized Johnson for signing a pledge that protects tax breaks for outsourcing jobs to Mexico and China, and for suggesting he's open to cutting Medicare and privatizing Social Security benefits.
Kissell, who is endorsed by the National Rifle Association, has pledged not to cut Medicare entitlements and to fight for veteran's benefits.
In order for the country to get back on the right track, Johnson said, Congress must first put the needs of everyday Americans at the top of its to-do list.
"It's America first," he said. "Let's take care of our backyard and our needs and our job opportunities and then we'll worry about the rest of the world. The rest of the world can take care of itself. And we need to right now focus on what we need to do to make America better."
The self-described Reagan Republican says that while Republicans have in the past made mistakes while they've held the House majority, the GOP deserves another chance at controlling the power of the purse.
"I'm 69 years old, and the point I make is if Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States at 69, if people can elect him to do that, then the people of 8th district can hopefully elect me at 69 to be their congressman," Johnson said. "We thought we could spend our way to popularity and prosperity, and it did not work. And my message basically to the American people, to the people in the 8th district, is give us another chance."
While Johnson has stumped across the state, he said he has been struck by how many Democrats have come out to support his campaign.
"I'm amazed at the number of Democrats that have come up to me and said, 'Harold, I couldn't do anything for you in the primary, but I'm going to vote for you in November.' And I shake their hand, I thank them, and I look them in the eye, and say, 'Please don't tell me that unless you mean it,' and they look at me and they say they mean it," Johnson said.
"I know a lot of Democrats," he said. "I know a lot of good Democrats, and the Democrats that I know in North Carolina in the 8th District are not the same Democrats that are running Washington right now like Nancy Pelosi and Larry Kissell and the rest of that liberal group up there that are taking us over a cliff."
Election analysts say Kissell's campaign has been hurt by poor fundraising efforts and say Kissell's 2008 victory relied heavily on the coattails of the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
Twenty-eight percent of the district's population is African-American, and voter turnout figures to be lower during the congressional midterm election Nov. 2.
"I'm going to apply everything I've learned and every ounce of energy I have to making this country better," Johnson said. "I'm not going up there to better myself. I'm not going up there to work for a lobbyist group after I'm through with these politics.
"I hope that I can be part of the 112th Congress that we can look back on in 20 years or whatever and say, 'You know what, the 112th Congress House of Representatives started the change in America and put America's beacon back on the bright light. And that's what we need right now. The beacon is cloudy. We need to clean up the beacon and make it shiny again."