When Mick Mulvaney stepped off his shiny, black-and-gold campaign bus at the Cherokee County Public Library, Bob Gilbert was among the 50 supporters waiting to greet him.
Gilbert had already decided to vote for Mulvaney in Tuesday's midterm elections. But the 67-year-old Blacksburg resident isn't ready to label himself a fan.
"This is because I don't like Spratt and what he's done," Gilbert said of his choice. "I'm going to give Mulvaney a chance. If he doesn't do what he says he's going to, we'll look for a different person."
This is the kind of reaction Mulvaney has encountered across the 5th Congressional District, where many voters are angry at 14-term Democratic U.S. Rep. John Spratt over his votes for health care reform, the stimulus package and bank bailouts.
In a normal election year, Mulvaney admits he wouldn't have much of a chance. But this is no typical year.
"I expected to lose by 15 points," Mulvaney told a group of seniors last week, describing his initial outlook on the race. "You just don't beat Mr. Spratt...Things have changed dramatically."
A political climber
The contest against Spratt marks the latest chapter in a swift political ascension for Mulvaney, who moved to South Carolina in 2002 and is now making his third run for office in the last four years.
Critics describe the 43-year-old businessman as an opportunist always looking toward his next move.
He's "pleasant enough," state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, said last week. "He's been in the Legislature four years and offered no solutions. None of our ideas are perfect, but you've got to be about solutions."
Supporters counter that Mulvaney brings a blunt-spoken, straight-ahead style needed in today's political world. They welcome his message of lower taxes and limited government.
"You can actually talk with him and have a conversation," said Shannon Tyler of Gaffney, whose sister-in-law works as a secretary for Mulvaney in the state Senate.
"You actually get an idea that this guy knows what he's talking about, instead of saying, 'Here's five talking points.'"
A few days after Mulvaney won a hard-fought race for state Senate against Democratic candidate Mandy Powers Norrell, a reporter from The Lancaster News asked about rumors spreading through local political circles that Mulvaney was planning a run for Congress.
"I couldn't stop laughing," Mulvaney said about his reaction to the rumors. "I'm perfectly happy being in the Senate."
Mulvaney told the newspaper he would serve in the Senate for "a couple terms" and couldn't imagine pursuing a federal office that would keep him away from his wife, Pamela, and their young triplets.
A year later, the plans changed.
After attending one of Spratt's town hall meetings on health care reform, Mulvaney said he came away convinced that someone needed to challenge the congressman.
In doing so, Mulvaney has found support not only from long-time Republican activists, but also from "tea party" supporters new to politics. And he's gotten a boost from outside groups that have spent more than $2 million in hopes of unseating Spratt.
Few supporters have been as vocal as U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a hero of the "tea party" movement.
"He's shaken hands in every corner of the district," said DeMint, a Greenville Republican, "which is something I don't think anyone has done."
Analysts say Mulvaney's path to victory starts in York County, an increasingly Republican area home to 29 percent of registered voters in the district. In 2008, Republican John McCain won 58 percent of the county's vote over Democrat Barack Obama.
Republicans also expect to fare well in Cherokee County and northern Lancaster County, where Mulvaney lives and has won two elections.
Big margins in these areas will be needed to offset Spratt's support in the rural east, home to more minority and Democratic voters and landmarks such as Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base, which has benefited from Spratt's position on the Armed Services Committee.
In his speeches to supporters, Mulvaney often ticks off the names of obscure towns and hamlets he's visited since the race began.
"We've never taken a regional approach to this campaign," Mulvaney said in an interview. "The 20 people I talked to in Bennettsville last week carry just as much weight as people in Lancaster or Cherokee.
"I don't care where the votes are. We're going everywhere to get them."
Roots in Charlotte
Mulvaney was born in Alexandria, Va., but his family moved to the Charlotte area when he was 1.
As a student at Charlotte Catholic High School, Mulvaney competed on the wrestling and golf teams. Then it was on to Georgetown University for a degree in international economics, commerce and finance, and later a law degree from the University of North Carolina.
Before joining his father, Mike, in the homebuilding business, Mulvaney practiced law and spent several years with the Charlotte firm of James, McElroy & Diehl.
Partner Ed Hinson called him "a smart guy (and) a hard worker."
Mulvaney's work as a developer brought him to Indian Land, a once-sleepy area now home to the outer Charlotte suburbs.
Initially, the Mulvaneys lived in a triple-wide mobile home in Indian Land. The couple later built a house on a secluded 12-acre property. The Mulvaneys, who are Catholic, send their triplets to a Catholic school in Charlotte.
Mulvaney has earned a reputation as a hard-nosed legislator and campaigner.
In his run for state House District 45 in 2006, he narrowly defeated Alston DeVenny, a prominent Lancaster attorney and then-member of the Lancaster County Council.
When Republican Greg Gregory announced he wouldn't seek re-election to the state Senate, Mulvaney jumped into the District 16 race. He earned 53.7 percent of the vote to overcome strong opposition from Norrell, an attorney and Lancaster native.
Mulvaney has cultivated friends and opponents during his four years in the Legislature. He was a close ally of Gov. Mark Sanford, but the two grew apart after revelations of Sanford's affair with an Argentine woman.
Mulvaney rankled some lawmakers outside of his circle of like-minded colleagues.
"He's a little bulldog," said former Republican state Rep. Skipper Perry of Aiken, who often clashed with Sanford. "If you were part of that Mark Sanford crowd, he had a great reputation. If not, we just tolerated him."
One of Mulvaney's close friends in the state Senate is Phil Shoopman, a freshman Republican from Greer. Mulvaney caused friction with some of the old-guard members of the Senate, Shoopman said, but that's what often happens with the arrival of energetic newcomers.
"I wouldn't say he's a polarizing character," Shoopman said. "When Mick goes to the well (of the Senate), the majority in the room know where he's going to fall on the issue. He is what he is."
Jim Morrill of the Charlotte Observer contributed.