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GOP Incumbent McHenry Campaigns on Change Theme in 10th District

Correction Appended It's race day at the Cleveland County Fair in Shelby. Pigs are charging around a small hay-covered track. Inside the nearby Exhibition Hall, Daniel Johnson is in the midst of his own race: The 32-year-old Hickory Democrat is shaking hands with fairgoers as he tries to unseat Republican Patrick McHenry in North Carolina's 10th District. "How you doing, ma'am. I'm Daniel Johnson, running for Congress here in the district. Hope you'll consider voting for me" Johnson doesn't mention that he's a decorated former Navy officer. It's also hard to tell he lost both legs in a 1999 shipboard accident in Korea while trying to help a fellow sailor. Being a double amputee hasn't slowed his ambitions. He's worked as an aide to former U.S. Senator Max Cleland of Georgia. He earned a law degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, worked as a prosecutor and now practices law in Hickory. "My background's been in public service, and part of our decision to get involved this race was we thought this would be a great way to continue my career in public service," Johnson says. "And we want to provide a new representation and a new voice in Washington to make sure we set this country on the right track." The 10th district stretches from the Tennessee border, though Hickory, and south to the South Carolina border. It's a tough place to be a Democrat. Republicans outnumber Democrats, the district has elected a Republican to Congress every year since 1968. But Johnson is hoping voters' dissatisfaction with President George Bush and the economy will give him a shot at victory. "There's a great deal of distrust of government right now. We need to change how business is being done in Washington, make sure we're focusing on the needs of the people and not the needs of a re-election campaign," Johnson says. "People are eager for new leadership and new representation in Washington." In the past, McHenry has appealed to conservative voters by touting his stands on social issues, such as opposition to illegal immigration and abortion. But this year is different. "The race is really coming down to one issue. When the economy really blew up, and went to the front of the line, the Democrats all rose to that," says Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh. A poll his firm conducted in late June showed McHenry with a 10-point lead. But the economy has changed a lot since then. Debanam says most polls since June have shown gains statewide for most Democrats, although Debnam hasn't polled the 10th district again. The 10th District has been hit hard by furniture and textile plant closings in recent years. Many have moved overseas. McHenry blames free trade agreements such as NAFTA, which passed before he was elected to Congress, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, which he voted against. He also has voted for worker assistance programs. He says those votes are evidence he's working for his district, not for the Republican Party or special interests. "I was one of 37 Republicans to vote for trade adjustment assistance, to enhance that, which has helped those who have lost their jobs through the loss of textiles and furniture industry jobs here in Western N.C. due to trade," McHenry says. " I was one of 27 Republicans to vote against CAFTA. The Central America Free Trade Agreement I thought was bad for jobs in Western North Carolina. So I've looked at each individual issue based on what's best for the people of Western North Carolina." He also voted against the recent federal bailout of Wall Street. That stance landed him national television interviews, and plays well with voters like Leon Jackson of Shelby. "I think he's got a good level head on him, and he'll be for the taxpayer. Definitely. He did show us that he's for the taxpayer when he did not vote for the bailout," Jackson says. McHenry says the crisis is Wall Street's fault, and that the bailout was the wrong way to fix the problem. " I don't think it's appropriate for the taxpayers of western North Carolina to bail out those who made bad decisions on Wall Street. The fact is, we're in this crisis based on the failures of Wall Street and I believe that Main Street shouldn't have to bail out Wall Street," McHenry says. Johnson blames McHenry, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee, and Congress for failing to regulate the financial industry. "He was out on the front lines defending subprime lending and that practice. Now we've gotten into the mess that we're in," Johnson says. He points to newspaper columns and past votes where McHenry opposed regulations that would restrict subprime lenders. Johnson says the country needs to find a way to cut health care costs, reform the tax code to relieve burdens on the middle class, and revisit free trade agreements that have hurt the region's economy. Andrew Hopper Sr. is a Shelby City Council member and an Army veteran, and he's impressed. He's quick to point out that Johnson is a "fellow veteran." He is a smart young man, it's what we need in Washington. We don't need another go up there and be one of the status quo and fall in line with the party that's in power," Hopper Sr. says. A billboard along Highway 150 in Lincoln County urges voters to "Vote for the Right Change, the Republican Party." As the incumbent, that's how McHenry is positioning himself. "I am a part of the change that we need, because I am standing against these bad actions of Washington and I've stood up completely and totally for the constituents of western North Carolina," McHenry says. Both McHenry and Johnson are 32. So no matter who wins, the 10th district will still have one of the youngest members of Congress. Correction: This story has been revised to reflect a correction. The 10th District has been served by a Republican every year since 1969 - nearly four decades. The original story said nearly three decades.