Ozark, Alabama - Rep. Bobby Bright was all smiles as he swapped stories with John Whitener, who's watched Bright grow from humble beginnings to become a successful lawyer, mayor of Montgomery, and the first Democrat since 1964 to represent Alabama's heavily conservative 2nd congressional district.
However, when the talk turned to who'd have Whitener's vote on Nov. 2, the 81-year-old tugged on his University of Alabama Crimson Tide cap and asked Bright, "If you win, are you going to fire Nancy Pelosi?"
Bright dodged the question on the spot, but days later he went on television to say he wouldn't vote for Pelosi, D-Calif., nor House Republican Leader John Boehner for the speaker's job.
"I like Bobby, I really do, but he's working on the wrong side of the aisle, that's all," said Whitener, a lifelong Republican who doesn't let friendship interfere with his politics. "I think we need some checks and balances in Congress."
That's the challenge facing Bright, an incumbent freshman, and 48 other fiscally conservative Democrats who are fighting to keep their seats in districts where Republican John McCain won more votes than Barack Obama did in the 2008 presidential election. Whether the House of Representatives is run by Democrats or Republicans the next two years may well turn on the fate of these endangered 49 Democratic incumbents.
They're running so scared that several are disavowing significant parts of the party agenda pressed by Obama and House Speaker Pelosi, D-Calif. Many of them refuse to commit to voting for Pelosi to be speaker again if Democrats keep control of the House. Some even campaign on repealing parts of the health care law, the Obama administration's signature achievement.
"If I win, I'll be the exception, I know that," said Bright, a Blue Dog Democrat who voted with Republicans against the health care bill, against Obama's economic stimulus package, and against a bill to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. "But I'm gonna win."
Less than four weeks before Election Day, the prospects for many of these 49 House Democrats look precarious. Nearly half of the 54-member Democratic Blue Dog Coalition are in contests listed as tossups or leaning Republican by polls and analysts.
Bright's campaign maintains that he "stands up to Nancy Pelosi" and votes with Boehner 80 percent of the time, although an NRCC ad accuses him of voting with Pelosi 71 percent of the time, based on a different database. Bright voted with a majority of House Democrats only 45 percent of the time in 2009, according to Congressional Quarterly, an independent research service.
Pressed on whether he would support Pelosi again for speaker, Bright raised eyebrows when he observed last month that Pelosi could "get sick and die" before the next Congress convenes. On Thursday, he announced that he wouldn't vote for Pelosi or Boehner.
"Neither the leader of the minority party, John Boehner, nor the present speaker will get my vote," he told WFSA-12. "I will vote for someone, a centrist, who is much more like me."
David Mowery, who ran Bright's 2008 campaign, said that while the comment may offend some in Washington, it scores in Alabama.
"This is the type of strategy that you have in Alabama if you have a 'D' next to your name," Mowery said. "You have to remind voters why they voted for you."
The strategy appears to be working.
In Ozark, Shannon Register, 38, walked out of the town's Republican Party office last weekend with an armful of lawn signs for almost every GOP candidate — except for Bright's opponent, Martha Roby.
"I'm seriously considering Bright — I'm doing my research — I vote Republican but I pick and choose," Register said. "I think he's done a lot for here. It's nice to be able to see somebody who's one of us."
Needing to gain 39 seats to control the House, Republican support groups are pumping tons of money, manpower, and other resources into the districts of vulnerable Democrats, including Bright's.
The National Republican Congressional Committee reserves $500,000 for Bright's opponent — Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby — for ads. The Republican National Committee's "Fire Nancy Pelosi" bus tour rolled through Montgomery last month.
"He's got a district that's incredibly conservative, and I have no reason to believe that Barack Obama is more popular there today than he was in 2008," said Andy Sere, an NRCC spokesman. "(Bright's) always going to have a target on his back."
Nobody knows that better than Bright, who won his seat in 2008 by 1,790 votes in a district where McCain received 63 percent of the vote.
A recent Democratic Party poll found Bright ahead of Roby by 9 points, though the survey had an error margin of 4.9 percentage points. Several outside political analysts consider the race too close to call.
Alabama's 2nd district is an urban-rural mix that covers a wide swath of the southeast corner of the state. It's a hodgepodge of peanut farms and military installations such as Fort Rucker, an Army helicopter flight-training base.
The district includes parts of Montgomery, the state capital and an epicenter in the 1960s civil rights struggle, and small towns such as Ozark, with about 15,000 residents.
Though its electorate is 31 percent African-American, the district long has had a conservative political streak. It was one of five Alabama districts that went Republican in 1964 and helped Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater win the state in his failed bid for the presidency. Republicans had a lock on the congressional seat until Bright won it two years ago. Now Bright's fighting to avoid being swept away in a national GOP tide.
"I think anybody could be on the ballot and be a Republican and have a chance of winning here, because the sentiment is so strong against Obama and Nancy Pelosi and the health care bill," said Joseph Adams, the editor of The Southern Star, an Ozark weekly newspaper that endorsed Bright. "People here don't like being told what to do by the federal government."
Bright projects both confidence and concern about his re-election chances. Before Congress adjourned, Bright predicted that "This political tidal wave they're talking about coming in November, it's not coming to District Two in Alabama.
"Because my people know who I am," he said. "I voted with my constituents, and I haven't voted what the (Democratic) leadership has wanted me to vote."
Then, almost in the next breath, he conceded that, "I've never been in an election before that I didn't have control over the public's perception. . . . Now the air is such that I can talk with a group of folks and some of them, I mean, I leave and I feel very little support or understanding."
His formula for victory is a simple yet potentially risky strategy that's being followed by several Democrats in districts McCain won: Stress independence from Pelosi, highlight their conservative voting records and focus on local issues.
However, reminding Republican-leaning voters why they sent Bright to Washington could turn off African-American voters, whose support is critical to his chance for victory.
Bright benefitted from strong African-American support in 2008 and from the goodwill he generated during his nine years as the mayor of Montgomery, when he appointed the city's first African-American police and fire chiefs.
However, the goodwill appears to be fading. The national NAACP gave Bright an "F" on its legislative report card, based on 25 House votes ranging from health care to the stimulus package.
The Alabama Democratic Conference, an African-American political organization, is scheduled to meet in Birmingham this weekend to discuss candidate endorsements. Joe Reed, the conference chair, liked Bright as mayor, but not so much as a congressman.
"He can't be attacked in Alabama for being too Republican," Reed said. "Hell, he's just like them."
Edward Nettles, the senior pastor of Montgomery's Freewill Missionary Baptist Church, supports Bright and thinks he'll be re-elected, though getting African-Americans to the polls won't be easy.
"Black voters here aren't as energized as they were two years ago when the president was running, because there's no one of the ballot that can energize the black vote by Nov. 2," said Nettles, who's black.
Nettles is doing his part for Bright — with conditions. He agreed to appear in a Bright campaign ad only after receiving assurances that he could say in the ad that he disagrees with some of Bright's positions.
"He tells us he's a 'liberal conservative,'" Nettles said. "We don't know what that means."