BOSTON -- When it was announced that former President Bill Clinton would make a campaign appearance for U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, more than a few eyebrows went up.
Sure, it's a year when incumbents of every political stripe are squirming. And the fast-talking, sharp-witted Massachusetts Democrat certainly has his share of detractors, particularly after two years that put the House Financial Services Committee chairman at the center of Washington's efforts to grapple with the financial meltdown.
But could the former president's visit to the 4th Congressional District on Sunday indicate that Democrats consider Frank -- who has faced few serious challenges in his three decades in Congress -- vulnerable in November?
"I'm not sure how you can see it as anything other than a sign of weakness that he's bringing in Bill Clinton," declared Sean Bielat, Frank's 35-year-old Republican opponent.
But Frank bristles at the notion that Clinton's visit reflects an unusual degree of concern and says he is only doing what politicians running for office are expected to do.
"I'm frankly surprised at the question, 'Why are you campaigning?"' he said in an interview. "Am I supposed to not campaign? Or am I supposed to campaign ineffectively?"
Clinton was to appear Sunday at a campaign rally in Taunton, a small city in the southern portion of the district where Republican Scott Brown tallied 57 percent of the vote in January's special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Brown's upset victory energized the GOP and gave the party hope that it could further dent the previously all-Democratic congressional delegation in Massachusetts.
The 4th district stretches from the affluent Boston suburbs of Newton and Wellesley to the working-class cities of Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River. While registered Democrats heavily outnumber registered Republicans, more than half the district's voters are independent with no party affiliation.
Frank, 70, defeated a Republican opponent by a better than 2-1 margin in 2008 and did not have a GOP foe in the three previous elections. His toughest race was probably in 1982, when he won a second term by defeating Republican Rep. Margaret Heckler after redistricting forced the two incumbents to face off.
Frank said he became a target of the far right after being named chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee in 2007. Those attacks have prompted him to campaign harder in the last two elections, he acknowledged.
Frank shepherded through the House the Wall Street bailout and later one of the most far-reaching financial regulatory reform laws in the nation's history.
"There are some very rich people in the country who are very angry at me over the financial reform bill, so I have to be prepared to defend myself," he said.
Famous for both his pointed one-liners and self-deprecating humor -- his biography is titled "The Story of America's Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman" -- critics have also pointed to Frank's brusque manner and suggest he's grown arrogant and lost touch with constituents.
Making his first run for political office, Bielat is a U.S. Marine Corps Reservist and former manager at iRobot Corp. A native of Rochester, N.Y., where he was a registered Democrat, he became a Massachusetts resident in 2007. It was then that he registered as a Republican after becoming disillusioned with the policies of the Democratic Party, he said.
While readily conceding his lack of name recognition and a huge fundraising disadvantage to Frank, Bielat claims his campaign's own private polling puts him within striking distance. If that were not the case, he believes Clinton would not be expending his own limited campaigning time on this race.
"Look at all the seats the Democrats have to defend right now. If I was the DNC (Democratic National Committee), unless I was worried about this seat in particular, I wouldn't waste one of this guy's days on an allegedly strong incumbent who can raise so much money," said Bielat, who plans to hold an outdoor rally in Taunton during the Clinton event.
The former president was also helping other Democrats in New England on Sunday. He was set to appear at a rally for U.S. Senate candidate Richard Blumenthal in New Haven, Conn., and attend a fundraiser for former DNC chairman Steve Grossman, who is running for Massachusetts treasurer.
"Every good politician runs scared," said Boston College political science professor Marc Landy, who believes Frank is right to campaign aggressively.
Landy said Frank is facing a talented opponent for the first time in years and must be mindful of Brown's success in January. Still, he expects the incumbent to prevail.
"Barney has one big advantage: He has loyal followers, he has people in his district who love him," Landy said.