McGREGOR, Texas – Rep. Chet Edwards, an imperiled Democrat deep in the heart of Republican territory, finds exiting American Legion Post No. 273 slow going. Supporters and well-wishers keep stopping him.
The wife of a World War II veteran hugs him. Several men line up to shake his hand. Another woman talks to him for about 10 minutes, thanking him for his work on military issues, bringing jobs to this farm and ranching town of about 4,700 and, in her words, thinking for himself.
"You've done a good job," said Donna Smith, 50, an office manager and a Republican who says she will vote for Edwards again this year. Later, she said Edwards "has proven himself and shown that he can get things done."
"I hope people will look at him and his record," Smith said, "and not just believe what's being said about him."
Edwards is in the fight of his 20-year congressional career, struggling to hold onto one of the nation's most conservative districts represented by a Democrat. Stretching for 170 miles, the central Texas district includes former President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford; Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university, now headed by Clinton special prosecutor Kenneth Starr; and the city of Waco.
"I'm used to being a target," Edwards told The Associated Press. "This year there's clearly an anti-Washington environment, and I share those frustrations. I'm sickened by the hyperpartisanship. But I'm working hard at the grass-roots level, letting my independent voting record speak for itself. That's who I am, and that's who I always will be."
Edwards consistently makes the list of the most vulnerable Democrats; he hails from a district that gave Republican John McCain a whopping 67 percent of the presidential vote in 2008. Republicans again have set their sights on capturing the seat, counting on voter anger and frustration with a slow-moving economic recovery and slumping approval numbers for President Barack Obama to lift GOP candidates.
Edwards is among dozens of Democrats who have bucked their party on some elements of Obama's agenda — the stimulus package, health care overhaul or the climate change bill. Edwards' lengthy tenure — he was elected in 1990 — and his work as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs has translated into federal money for his district. But in a year of voter discontent with soaring deficits, the effort is more of a liability than a strength.
As the campaign becomes increasingly toxic for Democrats, none of it may matter.
Some of the most senior Democrats in conservative districts are facing what could be their most difficult races: Missouri's 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and South Carolina's 14-term Rep. John Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Even Democrats who, like Edwards, voted against the health care and climate change bills are locked in tough races because they are being linked to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Georgia Rep. Jim Marshall and South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin join Edwards on the list.
"Jim Marshall's days are numbered because of his continued support of Nancy Pelosi and her agenda of backroom deals, hocus-pocus economics and massive government spending," Marshall's opponent, former Georgia legislator Austin Scott, wrote on his website.
Directly in GOP crosshairs are roughly four dozen Democrats in districts that McCain won in 2008. That's one part of any GOP calculation to reclaiming the House.
Edwards, like other vulnerable Democrats, has distanced himself from Obama and Pelosi on several votes, including repeal of the "don't ask/don't tell" policy on gays in the military.
Just two years after Edwards was on Obama's short list of vice presidential candidates, he did not appear with the president or Pelosi during their recent, separate fundraisers in Texas. Instead, Edwards campaigned with former Bush administration Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi and three retired Army generals.
Edwards' closest race was in 2004, when he was the only Texas Democrat in a competitive race to keep his seat after the GOP-led redrawing of the state's congressional districts — winning with just 51 percent.
This year Edwards faces oil and gas executive Bill Flores, who said he is confident he can win his first run for public office with support from Republicans and tea party activists.
"Americans are reawakened because the Democratic takeover caused them to pay attention, and the execution of the Obama-Pelosi agenda has really frightened Americans," Flores said.
He significantly trails Edwards in fundraising, reporting about $415,300 in cash on hand as of June 30, compared with Edwards' $2.14 million-plus, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Flores, like other Republicans trying to unseat Democrats in conservative districts nationwide, is portraying his opponent as a Washington insider who fully backs the "failing liberal agenda" of Obama and Pelosi. In what's shaping up to be a nasty campaign, Flores has said Edwards should return $42,000 in campaign donations from New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, who faces trial in the House on ethics charges.
Edwards says Flores is harping on Democrats instead of explaining his comments that suggest a lack of experience and knowledge of the issues. Edwards has criticized Flores' plan to send veterans to the private sector instead of VA hospitals. He also questioned Flores' call to eliminate the Energy Department, arguing it would thwart expansion of a nuclear plant that would create 5,000 jobs and undercut research at Texas A&M University.
The Democrat also said he has not received any more money from Rangel and has spent the previous donations.
"I've voted for the straight Republican ticket every time, but now I feel like I've wasted my votes (for Edwards' opponents). This time I'm going to vote for Chet," said Edwin Sulak, a transmission company owner who attended an Edwards campaign event last week. "I like what he's done for veterans and for jobs in our area."
Roy Rost of McGregor said he usually votes for GOP candidates and has consistently voted for Edwards — but probably won't this year.
"I don't like how things are going in Washington, all the spending, and I don't know where the money is going to come from," Rost said.
Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.