FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Republican Rep. Clay Shaw is on the cusp of realizing a political dream, transforming his 25 years of service and clout into one of the most powerful jobs in Washington.
Too bad almost everything out of the nation's capital these days amounts to a nightmare for GOP lawmakers.
President Bush's approval ratings are sagging, gasoline prices and U.S. deaths in Iraq are rising, scandal is sowing discontent and a Medicare prescription drug plan is creating confusion. Events largely out of the Florida congressman's control — but closely linked to Republican rule — could determine his fate in the November elections.
"I'm a Republican, but I think Bush is doing a horrible job," said Steve Rowe, a 44-year-old financial adviser, as he rushed into a crowded restaurant in this beach town where Shaw served as mayor in the 1970s. "I'd be very open-minded to vote Democrat this time."
National Republicans recognize that Shaw is in a tough fight in a district that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry narrowly won in 2004. Bush was scheduled to headline a fundraiser for Shaw on Monday at a Fort Lauderdale home and planned to join Shaw at a Medicare event Tuesday.
In March, Vice President Dick Cheney traveled to Boca Raton to raise about $300,000 for Shaw.
Democrats recruited state Sen. Ron Klein to challenge Shaw in the 22nd Congressional District, which stretches roughly from the ultra-rich Republican stronghold of Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 22,000 out of 445,787 voters.
Klein, 48, served in the state House and state Senate and is no stranger to many of the area's voters; his legislative district overlaps Shaw's. A lawmaker since his election to the Florida House in 1992, Klein has supported a ban on assault weapons and a streamlined capital punishment appeals process. He served as state Senate Democratic leader for two years.
"If it wasn't for the political environment, I'd say he (Shaw) would have the edge," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
The political landscape leaves Democrats confident. In the state that ensured Bush's presidency in 2000, his recent ratings statewide mirror the low national numbers, with the president at mid-30 percent.
Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, fares better at 55 percent in a recent survey. He is in the last year of his term.
"You have people that want change, they want new priorities, they want somebody with a high level of energy to go to battle for them," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Shaw, 67, has had health problems, including surgery in January to remove a cancerous tumor from his left lung. "They keep an eye on me but I'm in good shape," he said.
Democrats have assailed the lawmaker, next in seniority to be the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. They have called him a rubber stamp for the Bush administration.
"What's been missing for a number of years is common sense and independent thinking," Klein said.
Shaw rejects the notion that he is a Bush toady, citing his differences with the administration on Social Security reform. He disagreed with the president's proposal to privatize Social Security using payroll taxes, but instead supports creating personal accounts using general revenue funds, which wouldn't dip into current reserves. Shaw also opposed oil drilling off Florida's coast and criticized Bush's actions on the Dubai ports deal and his proposed budget for cancer research.
Still, Shaw talks up his Washington power, arguing that his long tenure gives him considerable sway on Capitol Hill.
"I've made a lot of friendships ... and that means that I certainly get my phone calls returned," he said. "It's a long way from being a freshman."
The decision of Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., to retire at the end of the year leaves the chairmanship of Ways and Means open. Shaw is next in line although House Republicans would have the final say on who gets the job if they retain power.
"I view it as mine to lose," Shaw said. "That's worth an awful lot to the state of Florida and to my district."
Klein has repeatedly criticized Shaw on two issues in this coastal district, which has one of the nation's highest percentages of senior citizens: gas prices and the new Medicare prescription drug program.
"What I see wrong with this country is a group of people who are paying too much attention to lobbyists, large pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, insurance companies," Klein said.
As of March 31, Shaw had a slight edge financially, with just over $2 million in his campaign account compared with Klein's $1.5 million. Last month, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois headlined an April fundraiser for Klein that raised about $50,000.
Merle Black, a politics professor at Emory University, said Shaw's seniority could be critical.
"It's only Shaw's incumbency and what he's done during his long career in Congress that gives the Republicans a chance," Black said.