If U.S. Rep. John Spratt is to survive what many consider the toughest race of his 28-year political career, he will need support from voters like Billy Nettles.
A retired banker from Camden, Nettles describes himself not as a Republican or Democrat, but as "a thinker" willing to support candidates from either party.
This time, Nettles plans to vote for Spratt.
"I don't agree with everything he does," Nettles said. "But he's there, and he knows what's going on. (Politics) is a give-and-go business. I don't understand it all, but I know he does the best he can."
Nettles, 74, offered a warm handshake when Spratt approached him at a Chamber of Commerce reception in downtown Camden.
It was one of several stops Spratt made Thursday on a day of campaigning across Sumter and Kershaw counties, key battlegrounds in the race against Republican challenger Mick Mulvaney.
In his toughest re-election battle since 1982, Spratt has always maintained an edge by relying on Democratic strongholds in the Midlands and Pee Dee River areas.
But the York Democrat's traditional path to victory will be tested this year by the anger among many voters over health care reform, the stimulus bill and bank bailouts.
"His excuse is that he has to do that because of his leadership position in the party," said Ed Baxley, a retired National Guardsman from Camden. "At some point, his constituents ought to be more important.
"That's an unacceptable trade-off to me."
South Carolina's longest-serving Congressman has not faced this kind of challenge since 1994, when he narrowly defeated Larry Bigham in the Republican Revolution that swept Newt Gingrich into the speaker's chair.
"I need your help this time," Spratt told 120 supporters at a barbecue luncheon in Sumter. "It's neck-and-neck. I don't think we're going to know (the results) until late in the night Nov. 2."
After a full day of campaigning, Spratt and his group were the last to leave the evening Chamber event in Camden. They lingered until well after dusk as Spratt worked through the dwindling crowd, shaking hands and chatting.
Anger surprised Spratt
In a recent interview, Spratt said he didn't foresee the level of anger that has defined this election season.
"I knew health care would be a big issue," he said. "Frankly, I didn't think it would be this difficult. Some things we've done, I thought would be better received once the results were met."
Spratt stood by his assertion that Mulvaney is not the toughest opponent he has faced. He says Carl Gullick in 2000 and Ralph Norman in 2006 were more established than Mulvaney, who grew up in Charlotte.
"He's riding the crest of a long wave," Spratt said. "He had enough perception to see the opportunity and seize it. That's essentially what he's doing. He's opportunistic."
The Mulvaney campaign expects to fare well in conservative-minded York County, home to 29 percent of the district's registered voters, as well as Cherokee County and northern Lancaster County, where Mulvaney lives and serves as a state senator.
In 2008, John McCain won 58 percent of the vote over Barack Obama in York County.
To close the gap, Spratt must rally his traditional bases of support, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.
"If he can keep losses in the most Republican strongholds in the single digits - while maximizing turnout in the lower and eastern parts of the district where there is a stronger Democratic base - he may be able to fend off this challenge," Huffmon said.
Spratt often earns more than 70 percent of the vote in the rural Pee Dee River area, home to a strong African-American presence that leans Democratic. In 2006, he carried Marlboro County by a 56-point margin.
But the margins are much tighter in places such as Kershaw County, where Spratt earned 54 percent of the vote in 2006.
"We are fighting to win every single county," Mulvaney said Friday. "There have been huge crowds in Chesterfield, Sumter, and even Lee counties, just to name a few."
With Democratic gubernatorial nominee Vince Sheheen climbing in some recent polls, Spratt campaign officials believe they may get a lift in crucial swing areas near Sheheen's hometown of Camden.
"If Vince is able to turn out a bunch of Democratic voters in Kershaw and Sumter counties, it could be a big boost," said Spratt communications director Nu Wexler, former director of the S.C. Democratic Party.
Conservative activists are working to cut into the support. On his trip across Sumter County last week, Spratt passed dozens of bright-yellow road signs emblazoned with the words "Sack Spratt."
The signs, now popping up by the thousands across the district, are the work of a conservative group led by local activist Gardner Gore, said Braden Bunch, chairman of the Sumter County GOP.
"The fact is, there are a lot of folks very upset with the direction John Spratt has turned," said Bunch. "Spratt has gone very hard and quick to the left from where he was when folks voted for him in the past."
Work on behalf of Shaw
Spratt did not bring up his votes for health care reform or the stimulus on his campaign swing through Sumter last week.
Instead, he reeled off a list of improvements at Shaw Air Force Base: new barracks, a physical fitness center and dining hall.
After surviving five rounds of military base closing, Shaw serves as home of Ninth Air Force and the 20th Fighter Wing, which flies F-16s. An estimated 1,400 military and civilian personnel with the 3rd Army headquarters will move to the base in the next 11 months from Fort McPherson, Ga., as part of a base realignment. Fort McPherson is slated to close Sept. 15, 2011.
"We've literally rebuilt this base from stem to stern," Spratt told a group of veterans.
The base generates $400 million annually for the Sumter economy, and many locals say it wouldn't have been possible without Spratt's influence on the House Armed Services Committee.
"The question is, will people step back and look at the logic, or will they get swept along by the emotion of the times?" said Walter "Sonny" Newman, former chairman of Sumter County Democratic Party.
"They're hanging on John everything that went wrong, because he's the one who's there. They need to step back just enough to see the spectrum of his career."
Even in places such as Sumter, Spratt will have to work harder to earn his share of the vote, said Allen Bailey, a UPS employee and active Democrat. Conservatives are fired up like never before, Bailey said.
"Sumter will pull through," he said. "I feel like we'll do our part. I don't know about the other areas."
The Herald checks in on Republican Mick Mulvaney's campaign trip early this week through the 5th Congressional District.