In the state's southeast corner, a media-savvy congressional candidate has an unusual background that has gained national notice - he's a gung-ho former Marine officer who was once charged with premeditated murder after killing two unarmed Iraqi prisoners.
People still debate the innocence or guilt of Ilario Pantano, the Republican candidate. The Marine Corps dropped the charges after concluding there wasn't enough evidence to court-martial him. And yet his opponent, seven-term incumbent Democrat Mike McIntyre, has not made those charges an issue in the campaign.
Instead, the race has become a clear measure of anti-incumbent fervor and tea party clout this election season. On one side is the tea party-backed Pantano, channeling the issues and anger that dominate national news channels such as Fox and MSNBC. On the other is McIntyre, who has endorsements from a who's who of conservative groups and voted against nearly all the Democrat-backed bills that have inflamed conservatives.
The question is whether the district's voters still value McIntyre's focus on local needs, or whether they'll be going to the polls because of broad, national issues, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College.
"Pantano is representing the tea party movement and philosophy, and McIntyre represents that kind of mainstream House member who represents his district's interests," McLennan said. "McIntyre's whole campaign is based on 'Look what I've done for you over the past 14 years,' and Pantano is more interested in the whole philosophy of government."
Pantano's approach seems to be getting traction. Last week, a Raleigh group aligned with his limited-government views released a poll that showed the race a dead heat, with Pantano ahead among likely voters.
Local versus national
McIntyre can talk for hours about his efforts on subcommittees to bring fire engines to poor rural volunteer departments and funding for beach renourishment to keep tourist dollars flowing. Change whatever else you want in Washington, he said, but without key infrastructure, it's hard to bring new jobs to the district.
Pantano, meanwhile, focuses on cutting the size and influence of government and attacking Democratic legislation such as the health care overhaul. He also traveled to ground zero of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center to speak out against the Muslim community center planned for a site nearby.
He describes his campaign as part of a battle for the soul of the nation.
"It's not enough to bring home a shiny firetruck anymore," he said in an interview. "We've got to make major changes to create jobs in this country.
"I think there's universal agreement that national issues are issues in the district."
Now he gets more help
Pantano was speaking by phone from Washington, where he was attending events for Republican "Young Guns" - candidates who meet the GOP's top benchmarks for competitive campaigns. He is one of just 31 for which the National Republican Congressional Committee has begun spending money to run ads.
He wasn't initially high on the list of candidates the GOP thought would do well, said McLennan, the Peace professor. In the past few weeks, though, with the race tightening, he began to get more attention and more help.
It's not clear how his popularity surge has helped fundraising, as the most recent campaign finance reports are from June. Those reports show McIntyre had raised $722,000 in the election cycle to Pantano's $321,000.
District 7 covers nine counties in Southeastern North Carolina, from Fayetteville in the north, through hog farming country and south to Wilmington and the South Carolina line. Fewer than a third of its registered voters are Republican, but it leans conservative. In presidential races, George W. Bush carried the district in 2004 and John McCain in 2008.
McIntyre hasn't faced a serious challenge until now. In part, that's because he's one of the most conservative House Democrats. He has been endorsed by groups including the NRA, the National Federation of Independent Business, National Right to Life and the anti-illegal immigration ALIPAC. He voted against the Democrat-sponsored automaker and bank bailouts, health care bills, and the bill to cap and trade carbon emissions.
McIntyre's campaign is well aware of the danger posed by the anti-incumbent mood. It's running an ad in which a constituent talks about how he helped her business and says sometimes she wishes she could run everyone out of Washington - except McIntyre.
McIntyre said he understands the concern among many voters about the direction in which the country is headed, which is why he voted against those major Democratic bills. And he said he thinks the Muslim community center a couple of blocks from ground zero is a bad idea. But Pantano, he said, has only lived in the district since 2004 and showed no interest in its problems.
A clash of priorities
When Pantano makes fun of things like getting firetrucks for volunteer departments, it shows that his priorities are wrong, McIntyre said: "If your house catches on fire, you want there to be a firetruck."
Pantano switched registration from unaffiliated to Republican only last year, but his positions place him firmly among the most conservative House candidates.
He said McIntyre should have gone further than simply voting against measures such as the health care bill.
"It's not that he voted against it," Pantano said. "He should have gotten out front and worked against it."
Pantano's own willingness to support Defense Department cuts, despite an almost lifelong devotion to the military, proves his seriousness about cutting spending, he said.
"We need to stop spending, reduce the debt," he said. "Only the private sector will get us out of this."
Pantano backs ideas such as doing away with a federal income tax and creating a flat "Fair Tax" on everything people buy. And Congress, he said, should set an example by cutting its own pay by 25 percent.
"You have to lead from the front," he said, reverting to military terms.
'No worse enemy'
Pantano's biography is compelling. His dad, an Italian immigrant, worked three jobs. Pantano was reared in the rough Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and got into a ritzy prep school with the help of a scholarship.
From childhood, he focused on serving in the military. He served in the first Persian Gulf war, then re-entered the world of ambitious young New Yorkers, working his way through college and climbing from a clerk job to trader with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs before working in media and film companies.
Then came 9/11. From a New York street, Pantano saw the smoke coming from the World Trade Center towers and immediately headed for a barber shop. He had decided he needed to re-enlist.
He went to Iraq as a second lieutenant leading an infantry platoon. In Iraq on April 15, 2004, he led the unit to a home believed to contain insurgents.
Two men were leaving in a car as Pantano arrived, and he and his men stopped the car and searched it twice. Then Pantano was told that Marines searching the house had found a weapons cache. He ordered the prisoners' handcuffs removed and forced them to search their own car, and ordered the only two men in his unit nearby to provide security, which meant they were looking away.
2 magazines emptied
He later testified that the prisoners then made a threatening move toward him. He shot them, using one full magazine of about 30 bullets, then loaded a fresh magazine and emptied that one, too. Then he hung a sign on the bullet riddled car that read "No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy" - a slogan that he had heard from another Marine officer - and left it as a warning.
Pantano was charged with murder after one of his Marines told investigators the shootings weren't justified. In a hearing, though, the key prosecution witness was caught lying, and a host of Marines under and over Pantano in rank stepped forward to testify that he was an extraordinary leader who treated Iraqis with respect.
The officer who led the hearing concluded that Pantano had used poor judgment and recommended he be punished for desecrating the corpses, but found that the evidence did not warrant court-martial. A Marine general dropped the murder charges and overruled the recommendation that Pantano be punished for the shootings.
During his legal ordeal, conservative media took up Pantano's cause, and veterans spoke out against the idea of the Marine Corps prosecuting one of its own for killing likely insurgents in a combat zone.
Later Pantano co-authored a memoir titled "Warlord: No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy." He was able to hone his skills with the media during a book tour that included an appearance on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart.
Hiding his history?
Last week, CNN pundits joined McIntyre's campaign in criticizing Pantano for removing references to the killings and to his job at Goldman Sachs - the firm that became a symbol of Wall Street greed - from news clips he used in a campaign ad.
Pantano laughed at the idea that he has tried to hide his past, citing his book and dozens of media interviews.
Other than attacking the edited ad, McIntyre's campaign has mainly steered clear of mentioning the murder charges.
That's probably smart because it could backfire with many voters, said Roger Lowery, chairman of the department of public and international affairs at UNC Wilmington and a Vietnam War veteran.
"For some voters, obviously it would be a negative, but for those who think that no quarter should be granted in war, particularly with these Muslim terrorists, he's probably a hero," Lowery said.
Pantano, McLennan said, is carrying what looks like extraordinary political baggage - murder charges and the stint at Goldman Sachs. McIntyre, meanwhile, seems to have done what his constituents expected of him.
But none of that may matter.
"The real question," he said, "may be whether political philosophy trumps everything else."
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