Ad Links Buy a link » Tim Funk, The Charlotte Observer It's a political ritual in the mountains of Western North Carolina: Every two years, hopeful Democrats insist that this will finally be the year they unseat U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor.

And then, as sure as the leaves dotting the Great Smokies burst into color every fall, the hard-nosed Republican congressman from Brevard pulls out another win -- usually by casting his latest Democratic target as out of step with the culturally conservative 11th Congressional District.

But this time, they might have cause to be optimistic. In fact, some groups that monitor congressional races around the country are calling the contest a "tossup" that could help decide which party controls the House come 2007.

The other reason: Former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, the Democrats' latest hope, is almost as conservative as Taylor on issues such as abortion, immigration and same-sex marriage.

The Swain County-born Shuler, 34, is a member of the National Rifle Association and was wooed by the White House to run as a Republican in Tennessee -- the scene of his glory days as a star for the University of Tennessee.

"The Democrats that have run against Taylor in the past weren't raging liberals, but they took a stand on a few issues that let Taylor call them liberals in disguise," said Bill Sabo, a professor of political science at UNC-Asheville. "That's going to be very difficult to do with Shuler."

In recent radio and TV ads, Taylor has tried to tie Shuler to labor unions, trial lawyers and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader from California who will likely be elected House speaker if her party wins back the lower chamber in November.

Campaign finance reports show that Shuler has received $10,000 from Pelosi's political action committee, $10,000 from the trial lawyers' PAC and $215,000 from labor union PACs representing carpenters, teachers, government employees, letter carriers, electrical workers and others.

Shuler prefers to point to another of his $10,000 contributions, this one from the "Blue Dog Democrats" -- moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Congress who stray from the party line on military and social issues.

"Some of the national Democrats know we have a great opportunity to win one of the seats back," Shuler said. "That's why we're getting so much attention -- even if I don't agree with them on a lot of issues."

Shuler's chore, Sabo said, is to win back so-called "Reagan Democrats" by talking like an economic populist -- and looking like a down-home advocate of traditional values.

Or "mountain family values," as Shuler calls them during his frequent campaign trips to rural areas that helped President Bush win 57 percent of the 11th District vote in 2004.

In one TV ad, Shuler scolds Congress for being cozy with big oil companies (resulting in "skyrocketing gas prices") and big insurance companies (so that people "can't afford to see a doctor").

But the images in the ad offer a more conservative message: Shuler's backdrop is a farm, he is flanked by the American and N.C. flags, and the spot ends with him sitting on a front porch, drinking iced tea with a white-haired grandmother.

Shuler has also shown that he is willing to play offense against Taylor. In another TV ad, he blasts the congressman for voting to cut funding for loans for U.S. students even as he inserted money into the federal budget to pay for seven Russian exchange students to take classes at universities in Western North Carolina.

Taylor refused repeated Observer requests for an interview, leaving unanswered charges -- some old, some new -- that have surfaced in the campaign.

Those questions include whether it is a conflict of interest for a congressman to own a bank in Ivanovo, Russia, with the wife of a former KGB operative. And how he explains campaign contributions from clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Taylor has been dogged by ethics controversies for years. But voters in his district keep reelecting him, most recently with 55 percent in 2004.

A big reason: As chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on interior and environment, he is in position to bring home the bacon -- including millions of federal dollars for veterans hospitals, broadband Internet for rural constituents and an economic development foundation that links the region's universities with businesses.

"It would take [Western North Carolina] years to replace that experience and clout and leadership," said state Rep. Wilma Sherrill, a Republican from Asheville and an ally of Taylor.

As a freshman, Shuler would not be able to match that kind of Washington pull. But in the campaign so far, he has led in the few public polls released -- and has raised more than Taylor in campaign contributions. Through June 30, Shuler had come up with $1.1 million -- much of it from friends in Tennessee -- to Taylor's $985,000.

But Taylor, a banker and large landowner, is one of the richest members of Congress and closed the gap in 2004 by lending his campaign $250,000.

Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said Taylor "certainly should be worried. ... This is a horrendously bad environment for longterm Republicans, and Taylor is a classic case of a guy who's vulnerable to the 'time-for-a-change' mood out there."

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