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A right kind of Democrat

Times Staff Writer

He is pro-business and antiabortion. He is an evangelical Christian and an avid hunter. But, unexpectedly, Heath Shuler is a Democrat, and he is running for Congress in North Carolina.

Shuler is part of a phalanx of unusually conservative Democratic candidates who may deliver crucial victories over GOP incumbents and help their party win control of the House.

Republicans are ringing alarms about what the House would be like if the GOP lost control: a throwback to the unreconstructed liberalism of big-government activism, tax increases and a weak-kneed defense policy. They point with Halloween-season horror to the likely lineup of Democratic committee chairs, including Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and other liberal old-timers.

But, like Shuler, many of the Democratic candidates most likely to be elected are cut from a different cloth. Sixteen of them have been endorsed by the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative Democrats. Several used to be Republicans. Shuler was recruited to run as a Republican a few years ago but opted not to.

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In the waning days of the election campaign, candidates are increasingly debating what a Democratic-controlled Congress would be like: Would the tone and agenda be set by the Heath Shulers of the party, or its Henry Waxmans?

With so many conservative-leaning candidates at the forefront of the Democratic effort, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has, at least for now, stuck to a minimalist agenda that steers clear of grand, liberal ambitions. Instead, Democratic leaders are focusing -- and almost all serious Democratic candidates are campaigning on -- a more limited, six-point agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, repealing tax breaks for oil companies, restoring college tuition tax breaks, cutting Medicare drug costs and other plans they believe could draw bipartisan support.

The limited agenda has won endorsements even from Democrats as conservative as candidate Ken Lucas of Kentucky -- a former House member who, before he left Congress in 2004, voted “present” rather than vote for Pelosi in the traditional party-line vote for House speaker.

Republicans charge that the apparent moderation in Democratic candidates is a smokescreen meant to obscure their support for a party steered by liberals and initiatives such as tax increases.

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“They claim to be pro-life, pro-gun and anti-tax, yet their first vote in Congress would be to elect the most liberal speaker in American history,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which aims to enlarge the GOP majority in the House. “In the first hundred hours they will roll back tax cuts and open investigations into the administration.”

Even some centrist Democrats privately fret that the chairmen-in-waiting may be harboring pent-up desires for a robust liberal agenda and partisan investigations that could hurt the party. “There’s a desperate need for fresh blood, a general changing of the guard,” said one moderate Democrat who asked not to be named.

An influx of new blood from the party’s right wing could test party leaders’ ability to maintain the remarkable unity they have forged during their years in the minority. Among the party’s House challengers, 33 are conservative enough to be endorsed by either the Blue Dogs or the political arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Nearly all are on the Cook Political Report’s latest list of Democrats most likely to win seats now held by Republicans. The party needs to pick up 15 seats to win a majority in the House.

With more conservative Democrats in the House, President Bush could have a new opening to reach across the aisle. But so far, he shows no signs of preparing to do so. One of the few issues he cites as a priority for next year is his plan to overhaul Social Security -- a nonstarter among Democrats of all political stripes.

Bush’s senior advisors have been meeting to plan next year’s agenda, but apparently none of those discussions have focused on contingency planning for a Congress led by Democrats.

“I believe I’ll be working with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican-controlled Senate,” Bush said at a Wednesday news conference.

If they won a majority in the House, Democrats would be severely limited in what they could accomplish legislatively without control of the Senate and with Bush in office. Still, even a slim majority would give committee chairmen power to conduct investigations and issue subpoenas -- tools they want to use to scrutinize Bush’s policy on Iraq and other issues they believe the GOP bypassed.

In line to assume those powers is a cadre of unapologetic liberals of an older generation. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), first elected to the House in 1955, is poised to return to the Energy and Commerce chairmanship he held before Republicans won the House in 1994. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) would return as Appropriations chairman. Waxman is in line to be chairman of the Government Reform Committee, an important venue for investigations.

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In addition, minority-group members would gain great power in a Democratic House. African Americans are in line to become chairmen of the committees on taxation (Charles B. Rangel of New York), the judiciary (John Conyers Jr. of Michigan) and intelligence (Alcee L. Hastings of Florida).

Republicans are spotlighting that lineup, portraying it as extremist. They jumped on Conyers for calling for impeachment hearings against Bush, an idea Pelosi flatly dismisses. Republicans delight in pointing out that Hastings, before becoming a House member, was impeached as a federal judge.

Democrats say they believe such tactics are designed to mobilize conservatives and will not eclipse their efforts to present a more moderate face to swing voters. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year made a point of recruiting conservative candidates and even some former Republicans for this year’s midterm election, in some cases muscling out more-liberal contenders who seemed likely to lose in Republican-leaning territory.

“The Democrats are going to retake the House of Representatives by electing conservative and moderate Democrats,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition. “We’re going to move our party back to the middle.”

Republicans, in ads and elsewhere, have tried to discredit Democrats’ conservative credentials -- mostly by linking them to Pelosi.

In Indiana, GOP Rep. John Hostettler is running behind Democrat Brad Ellsworth, a sheriff who opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. But a new Hostettler radio ad says a vote for Ellsworth would be a vote for Pelosi.

“Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda,” the ad says.

In Kentucky, ads by GOP Rep. Ron Lewis call attention to the fact that his Democratic opponent, retired Army Col. Mike Weaver, has accepted donations from Pelosi. “He is not a certified conservative,” Lewis said.

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But Weaver, a state representative, is against abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage. He founded a conservative group in the state Legislature to push his party to the right.

In North Carolina, Shuler, who is running against GOP Rep. Charles H. Taylor, turned down encouragement to run for the House in 2002 as a Republican, despite his conservative views.

Shuler, a former quarterback for the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints, stuck with the Democratic Party, his spokesman said, because he wanted to “help those who cannot help themselves -- and that’s the Democratic Party.”

But Shuler dodges the question of whether he would support Pelosi as speaker, saying he wants to interview all candidates for that post.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang and researcher Jenny Jarvie contributed to this report.


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