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Friday, July 20, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

GOP firebrand faces tough test

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
The New York Times

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. —

Not far from the beach, Rep. Allen West recited the Declaration of Independence at a sweltering Fourth of July fair, lobbing the sentences into the crowd and hoping the gravitas of the words would sink in.

West, a Republican positioned near the top of the Democrats' knockout list, is fond of letting words speak for themselves — no parsing, no apologizing, no backtracking. In this era of survey-tested language, he is a verbal street brawler, unflinching in his speech, a trait that has won him the adulation (and campaign contributions) of conservatives and tea-party supporters who cheer his every Westism. He is one of the top fundraisers among House Republicans, rivaling Speaker John Boehner.

"People are looking for leadership," said West, 51, a first-term congressman and retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq. "Principles, pragmatism, passion and leadership: It's obvious we are representing those values."

Despite his celebrity and prodigious fundraising, West, who announced he would run in a new district this year, faces a serious challenge in November. The question for Democrats: Will his conservative stance and unbridled style pass muster with a new set of voters in an evenly split district?

West is likely to face Patrick Murphy, 30, a Democrat and political neophyte who is shaping up to be a potent force. Democrats are banking that, in a presidential-election year, West will fail to sway enough independent-minded voters to win. They view the newly created 18th Congressional District on the Treasure Coast as one of six possible Democratic gains in Florida. Impressed with Murphy's fundraising — he is among the top fundraisers among Democratic challengers — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put its financial and organizational strength behind him.

Aubrey Jewett, a political-science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the race would hinge largely on turnout.

As for West's penchant for controversy and his conservative voting record, it is too early to gauge its impact on the race. But he runs the risk of turning off at least some potential voters at a time when the tea-party movement's influence in Florida has encountered a backlash, said Kevin Wagner, a political-science professor at Florida Atlantic University.

"The danger for West is appearing that he is more interested in headlines and bombast and not as interested in representing voters in the district in a solid conventional way," Jewett said. "The fact of the matter is when he won two years ago, he seemed like a breath of fresh air to a lot of the voters down there who were anxious to send a message that they were dissatisfied with President Obama. Now that he has been in office for two years, his act may be wearing a little thin."

Heavy favorites

Both candidates face primary foes but are expected to win the races handily.

West learned this year that, with a squiggle here and a slash there, his original congressional district in Broward and Palm Beach counties had become far less hospitable to conservative Republicans. He jumped one step north, announcing he would run in a new swing district that encompasses St. Lucie County, Martin County and a slice of northern Palm Beach County.

Murphy, intent on defeating West in his original district, also shuffled north and rechallenged him. The newly drawn 18th District voted for Obama in 2008 and for Alex Sink, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor, in 2010. Voters opted for George W. Bush by 51 percent in 2004.

Campaign handicappers have said West is trying to modulate his tone; his first campaign ad, while true to his views, is sedate by his standards. Yet West, who is fond of town-hall meetings, said his principles are unshaken and portable while plunging into local issues — estuaries, for example.

"Why would you change your principles?" he said. "They fit in no matter where."

In his whirlwind first term as a congressman and one of two black House Republicans, West has said as many as 80 House Democrats are Communists. He has said the Democratic Party would do the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proud with its use of "lies and deceits." He has called people with Obama bumper stickers a "threat to the gene pool." He recently said Obama wants Americans "to be his slave and be economically dependent on him."

West later added to that thought. On Fox News, he said the increase in the number of people on Social Security disability since 2009 merely stokes economic dependency, "which, to me, is a form of modern, 21st-century slavery." Democrats delighted in hearing the words "Social Security" and "slavery" in the same sentence in a district teeming with retirees and quickly publicized it.

Fundraising giant

His words, no matter how raw, steer donations his way. He raised $2.2 million for the quarter, one of the highest tallies in the country, and has $3.7 million on hand.

He has raised nearly $10 million this election cycle, a huge number for the House.

West's campaign has described his likely rival as a cookie-cutter Democrat with little experience.

"At this point in time, Murphy is running a negative campaign to raise liberal money," said Tim Edson, West's campaign manager. "No issues. No substance. Just negative attacks."

It is true that Murphy has tapped into voters who strongly dislike West. An accountant who graduated from the University of Miami, Murphy is vice president of Coastal Environmental Services, which specializes in disaster relief and environmental cleanup.

"There are people saying, 'I don't care who you are, but you are better than Allen West' " he said. "It's truly a moderate district."

The Florida native said he decided to challenge West because he was angry about gridlock in Congress.

"It's about getting something done," said Murphy, who calls himself progressive on social issues and more moderate on fiscal issues. "The first thing I want to do when I get to Congress is have dinner with a Republican."

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