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Moderate Voters Make For Close Race Between Kissell, Johnson

Joe Mills (left) with Harold Johnson.

North Carolina's 8th Congressional seat is often one of the closest statewide races. Most voters there are registered Democrats, but they lean conservative - especially in a year like this when people are angry at Washington and the party in power. So the 8th district's freshman Democrat Larry Kissell is swimming against a strong current as he tries to keep his seat. And political newcomer Harold Johnson hopes to capitalize on it. Republican Harold Johnson is eager to talk about reducing the deficit, preserving tax cuts and getting the economy back on track. But most people just want to talk sports with him. It's the first thing out of Kenny Kiesznowski's mouth when Johnson sits down next to him at the St. James Catholic Church barbecue in Concord. "I travelled around the states playing baseball," says Kiesznowski of his younger years. "You played baseball? What position?" Johnson wants to know. And when Kiesznowski says he was a pitcher. Johnson wants to know the speed of his fastball and soon they're deep into baseball jargon. On the campaign trail, Johnson says he's embraced the fact that people seem more interested in talking sports with him, than politics. He was a sportscaster for more than 30 years on local TV, after all. Name recognition is his biggest asset in his bid to unseat Democrat Larry Kissell. "I'm fortunate enough that they like me," says Johnson. "I'm so proud of the fact that I won them over by being a nice person, a good honest man." But some Republicans wonder if "nice" is enough. "I think Harold Johnson's probably a nice guy, I've known him for a long-time as a sportscaster," says Kim Medlin of Mt. Pleasant. "But I'm not sure how that qualifies you to help run our, our money." Here's what Johnson says to doubters: "Does it take experience to get us in the mess we're in right now? I don't think so." So, the more Johnson can paint Larry Kissell as part of what's wrong in Washington, the better off his campaign will be. But that's complicated, because Kissell actually voted against a couple of big priorities for the Democrats - most notably, the health care reform bill. "Yes he did," says Johnson. "But we have to remember this too: over 96 percent of the time he voted with Nancy Pelosi." Kissell voted for the "failed" stimulus bill, Johnson points out. "The $800 billion bill was supposed to save jobs and it didn't." He tries hard to cast Kissell as a liberal, but polls show many moderate voters in the district remain unconvinced. Like Ida Mills. She's a registered Republican who thinks Kissell's not so bad. "He hasn't always voted with the Democrats," says Mills. "I think he's used his own conscience, so I'm not sure." She's still undecided. But her husband Joe is a big Johnson supporter. At the St. James Barbecue, he and Johnson bond over their shared military service. Johnson spent 4 years in the Marines just prior to the Vietnam War. "I'm honored to have your support in November," Johnson says to Mills. "We need to change direction - America first! Let's try that for while." The latest polls show Johnson gaining on Kissell in what is expected to be a close race. A well-funded conservative group called Americans for Job Security sees enough potential to spend more than half a million dollars running attack ads against Kissell. But nationally, Kissell isn't considered as vulnerable as a lot of other Democratic incumbents. Recently he got the endorsement of the NRA, which more commonly supports Republicans. And farmers who make up a large rural slice of the 8th district are pretty happy with Kissell. At a Cabarrus County Farm Bureau meeting last week, Kissell was given the "Friend of the Farm Bureau" award for his support of subsidies and incentives important to agriculture. In the parking lot afterward, he didn't seem too worried that he might become a casualty of anti-Washington anger. "The best way to get re-elected is by doing a good job and people will see that we're working hard," says Kissell. "This race is about the people of the district." But Kissell also knows the power of an angry electorate. Two years ago, he rode an anti-Republican wave into office. A groundswell against his own party could just as easily sweep him out.