CASHIERS, N.C. – Facing a strong re-election challenge from Democrat Heath Shuler, veteran Republican Rep. Charles Taylor is going after a candidate who gets an "F" from the National Rifle Association and a perfect score from a leading abortion-rights group.
But that's not Shuler, a former NFL quarterback who hopes his pro-gun and anti-abortion positions appeal to swing voters and social conservatives alike in this mountainous district in western North Carolina.
Instead, Taylor's target this summer is Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California congresswoman who has emerged as a "boogey-woman" of sorts for Republicans campaigning this year on the idea that Democrats can't be trusted with control of the House.
"Rookie Heath Shuler is following the playbook of San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi," an announcer intones as the noise of a stadium crowd and marching band plays in the background of a 60-second Taylor radio spot. "The Pelosi game plan: Elect Heath Shuler and others like him, and take over Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants."
These rugged, rural mountains, which couldn't be more different from Pelosi's San Francisco, aren't the only place Republicans want to make the specter of a Democratic House a key campaign issue.
In South Carolina's 5th District, state Rep. Ralph Norman is challenging 12-term Democratic incumbent John Spratt and has repeatedly linked Spratt to Pelosi, saying voters should elect Norman if they want the GOP to maintain control of the House.
Before announcing in April that he would leave Congress, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay criticized the Democrat lined up to run against him as a tool of "liberal activists" like Pelosi, Barbra Streisand and financier George Soros.
House Republicans recently released a document claiming that a Democratic House takeover would lead to committee chairmanships for several prominent liberal Democrats, including California's Henry Waxman, New York's Charles Rangel and Michigan's John Conyers Jr.
"Nancy Pelosi is one of the most stridently liberal politicians in recent memory, and insofar as candidates can draw a contrast between their record and Pelosi's record, (she) could emerge as a campaign issue," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
For Taylor, it is so far the only issue the eight-term incumbent is talking about. It's been years since the timber and banking magnate faced a tough re-election challenge. He has rarely been pushed hard enough to have to campaign actively and almost never advertises until the final weeks of a race. But with some polls showing Shuler running ahead of the incumbent and the race considered a toss up, Taylor jumped into the campaign this summer with the spot linking Shuler to Pelosi.
Shuler's campaign calls Taylor's ad dishonest, noting that Shuler has repeatedly said he opposes illegal immigration and supports effort to strengthen the nation's borders.
"I'm a Democrat," Shuler said. "I feel that (Minority) Leader Pelosi and I certainly have different viewpoints on the social issues, but I feel like as a whole ... I'm a Democrat, kind of the old, Southern-style Democrat, certainly a more moderate-style Democrat."
Asked whether he would vote to make Pelosi the House speaker if he is part of a Democratic takeover of the House, Shuler responded: "Just as I was interviewed to run for this office, I will also do my interview process and pick the person that not only fits the best for our district, but also fits our party best."
Taylor often declines to speak with reporters, and calls to his campaign headquarters seeking comment about the ad were not returned. But Collegio, who pointed out Pelosi's campaign committee has given $4,000 to Shuler's campaign so far, said the ad "shows Charles Taylor is taking this race seriously."
Jack Pitney, a government professor at California's Claremont McKenna College, wonders how much good it will do. Citing a Gallup poll released earlier this summer, Pitney noted 40 percent of Americans surveyed either didn't know Pelosi, or had no opinion of her. Those who knew her were roughly split between positive and negative feelings, he said.
"Congressional leaders usually don't provide much ammunition to the other party," Pitney wrote in an e-mail interview. "In most cases, voters have only a hazy picture of the top Republicans and Democrats in Congress."
Conservative Democrats so far seem immune to claims that Shuler — with his anti-abortion positions and blaze orange "Sportsmen for Heath Shuler" bumper stickers — is a closet liberal.
"I say Heath Shuler is a man with his own mind made up," said John Leopard, a Cashiers, N.C., resident who attended a recent Shuler speech. "If he needed to vote with Nancy Pelosi, he would vote. If he had to vote against her, he would. That's the reason I would vote for him."
Asked recently by reporters how she felt about being painted as a GOP "boogey-woman," Pelosi said the tactic "represents a bankruptcy of ideas."
"I think that it indicates the Republicans don't have a positive agenda. They don't have anything," she said. "They have been in power with the House and the Senate and the White House; they could have accomplished so many things for the American people and they have failed. ... That is why they have to do their ad hominems, because they don't have anything positive to talk about."
Of course, there could be other motives at work. Pitney said while swing voters aren't likely to be moved much by anti-Pelosi campaigns, the tactic could succeed at riling up the Republicans' conservative base.
"Conservative donors might open their checkbooks to stop a Pelosi speakership," he said.