Razor's Edge: Can Va.'s Perriello Stage a Comeback?

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Two years ago, President Barack Obama's message of hope and change ushered in a new class of Democrats to Congress.  Now, the freshmen lawmakers are fighting for their political survival. Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., is one of them. 

The 36-year-old gained national attention in 2008 as the comeback kid of the year.  Just weeks from the election, some polls showed him down by more than 30 points. But he came back to beat a long-time Republican incumbent in a conservative district by less than 800 votes in the closest election in the nation.

"I didn't get into this to play tiddlywinks, you know," Perriello said. "This is a serious battle."

Now he's fighting the battle again, but this time he has a voting record. 

Perriello's Stance on the Issues

Despite early concerns about abortion language in the bill and heavy lobbying by Tea Party activists from his district, Perriello voted 'yes' on the health care law.  He also voted 'yes' on cap and trade legislation and stimulus spending. 

And although the National Review named him one of the 15 most independent members of Congress, his opponent, Virginia state Sen. Robert Hurt (R), is portraying Perriello as out of touch with main street Virginia and a rubber stamp for the Obama-Pelosi-Reid agenda.

"The obligation of any representative," Hurt said, "is to stand up for your people regardless of who in Washington or who in Richmond may be banging on you otherwise."

Hurt's Virginia roots and political ties run deep. He attends the same Presbyterian church his family has gone to for generations, and he has a decade of elected political experience in local and state office.

A third candidate, Jeff Clark, who's running as an independent conservative, hasn't gained any traction in the polls.

"The election, at the end of the day is about whether or not we want to return to those principles that made this country great or do we want to go in the direction of Europe and Greece and watch the dismantling of the greatest country on earth?" Hurt said. 

Catholic Roots

Perriello's view of the world is colored by his passion for service, born out of his strong Catholic roots.   

After graduating from Yale University, Perriello worked with child soldiers and amputees in Sierra Leone and in other capacities overseas.  He started two faith-based organizations dedicated to furthering his social justice Christian values.    So-called progressive Christians have come under attack recently by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck, but Perriello makes no excuses for his beliefs.

"It's not for me to tell someone how to interpret their Bible. I know that Jesus speaks overwhelmingly of caring for the least among us, and you can't just edit that out of the Bible."

Swimming Upstream?

Although Perriello has incumbency on his side, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics said, "Swimming against a wave is very, very tough. The odds are a lot of congressmen in Perriello's position will be drowned."

The most recent polling shows Hurt with a one to 6-point advantage over Perriello. 

A lot is at stake in Virginia's 5th District, which is as big as the state of New Jersey.  It has the highest unemployment in the state, and some communities are facing an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent - that's more than double the national average.   

The candidates have different ideas about how to get people back to work in a region where tobacco, textiles and furniture manufacturing were king.

"There's no shortcut," Perriello said "You have to rebuild your competitive advantage.  There has to be a reason for a business to relocate there.  If you just try to do it by throwing every tax break at them, they're going to be there as long as the breaks exist and then they're going head out."

"The federal government is spending $1.7 trillion in deficit spending," Hurt said. "It's borrowing $13 trillion from places like China and Japan and that sort of spending absolutely has an effect on business."

Perriello: Judgment Day Trumps Election Day

Perriello says he's just starting to hit his stride inside the beltway.  He wants to keep his seat, but if things don't work out for him, he says he'll pray about it and find a new way to serve.

"One of the promises that I made to my father when I got into this was that I would always remember that Judgment Day is more important than Election Day."

Meanwhile, Tea Party and other conservative activists are helping Hurt keep up the heat on Perriello.  Hurt says he hopes they continue spreading their conservative message long after Election Day and that Republicans learn their lessons from the past   

"We've got to get it right this time," he said. "And Republicans have got to demonstrate that they can lead."

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.