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The Democrat in Republican Country

By Bill Zeeble, KERA reporter

Waco, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: District 17 is conservative country, the home of President Bush's Crawford Ranch, but also the site of Camp Casey, set up by anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. Two years ago in the presidential election, Mr. Bush garnered more than two thirds of the votes in the district. The Iraqi war was an issue then, and is big once again, here and nationwide. Eight-term Democrat Chet Edwards says there's no question where he stands.

Chet Edwards, Congressman, District 17: Issues of war and peace shouldn't be partisan. These should be votes of conscience, not votes based on a party position or political convenience of the day. There are a lot of concerns all across the country about the future of Iraq, but I oppose the immediate withdrawl of troops from Iraq and think that would be a guarantee of complete chaos and anarchy there.

Zeeble: Republican challenger Van Taylor backs President Bush on the war. Of several Iraqi War veterans running for Congress, he's the sole Republican. He offers his 4 months combat experience as a major qualification for office.

Van Taylor, Republican Candidate, Congressional District 17: I have direct relevant experience in the war on terror that is crucial to keeping our country safe and secure from terrorist attack. After receiving a lot of encouragement from people here in central Texas, I'm running for the same reason I fought in Iraq. Because I want to give a better stronger, safer America to the next generation. As a marine and business man I know how to defend the border, beat terrorists, and balance the budget.

Zeeble: Taylor joined the marines in 1995 and spent time as a young Lieutenant on the U.S. Mexico border. He then joined the Marine Reserves and earned an MBA. He ran a successful real estate investment business in Dallas, and moved it to Central Texas about a year ago. Baylor political science professor Thomas Meyers says the Republican's military emphasis may not play as well as he'd hoped.

Doctor Thomas Meyers, Political Science, Baylor University: Meyers: One of Chet Edwards' major strengths is with veterans. He has worked with Fort hood, he has worked closely with the V.A. hospital's here in Waco. Veterans are very pro-Edwards in most cases. So I think Taylor made a bit of mistake when he pitched his campaign to appeal to veterans. Chet pretty much has that locked up.

Zeeble: An hour in a Lowe's parking lot confirms some of Meyer's assessment. Several customers, like Gilbert Beckland, were veterans

Gilbert Beckland: I'm going to stick with Chet no matter what. I'm an ex-veteran and he's proved himself with us

Zeeble: But veteran Conrad Lott, who's voted for Edwards in the past, says he'll give the challenger with military service a look

Conrad Lott So, a split decision on two of them, just got to see what happens in next few months, with everything else that's going on.

Zeeble: Lott says to him, everything else' means the war, the economy, and border security. On the last issue, Van Taylor says he's worried that the small town appeal he and his wife moved here for, now seems threatened by illegal immigration.

Taylor: We don't control our southern border. A million people crossed over illegally last year. It's a flood. We're being overrun in this country by illegal aliens.

Zeeble: Taylor offers no specific solutions, but says other countries control their borders - so can we. He neither backs President Bush's guest-worker idea, nor the 700 mile border fence that Bush opposes and others in his party support. Chet Edwards blames the Republicans for some of the border security problems

Chet Edwards, Congressman, district 17: I'm actually fighting for change in Congress. I want to be more aggressive in border security. If the house leadership had agreed with me we'd have 6 thousand more agents on the border today.

Zeeble: Professor Meyers says Edwards has addressed issues of security over the years. He's not campaigning on them because of his opponent, but because of constituent interest

Meyers: The real strength of his candidacy is his bipartisan appeal. He's worked with Democrats and Republicans . You drive through very affluent neighborhoods here in Waco and you see Republican signs, except for the Congressional race, and most of those people are for Edwards.

Zeeble: Anne Stigliano might be one of them. She attended a recent Chamber of Commerce Lunch in Waco, where Edwards was the speaker.

Anne Stigliano, business woman: I'm typically a Republican but I do tend to vote for Chet. I just believe in his ideas and where he wants to take the community. Chet has been here long time. He's done a lot of good for the community and the area. I feel I can trust him and feel he'll do the best for us.

Zeeble: Taylor hopes to reverse some of that sentiment, with TV ads

Taylor 30 second TV ad

Zeeble: Taylor fears those values are at risk because of a free-spending Congress and its ballooning deficit

Taylor: Twenty years from now, Standard & Poores estimates that the federal government will have junk credit status. It's unacceptable to me that we would destroy our fiscal solvency because politicians are hooked on earmarks and wasteful spending to keep themsleves in office.

Zeeble: Chet Edwards calls the 8 trillion dollar debt an immoral burden on future generations and says he's fighting for a bipartisan solution to balance the budget once again. In his Chamber speech, he also defended earmarks for the district, including funds for local defense contractor L-3

Edwards: All earmarks aren't bad. The bridge to nowhere was an embarrassment. But money for Lake Waco, L-3 and others that I mentioned, didn't come out of the White House budget office, it's come from local ideas, come from us saying this is what the community needs for our economic future and quality of life. 23 million is what I've earmarked so far 12/37 this year for L-3 and I'll defend every dime. 16 mill for the border patrol program -

Zeeble: Edwards says such benefits - that constituents can see - would be lost with a freshman in Congress. Professor Meyers says while that's a typical incumbent's argument, it helped Edwards defeat well-known state legislator Arlene Wohlgemuth in 2004. Vice President Cheney campaigned for her, and this year, Mr. Cheney raised money for Van Taylor. But turnout and money raised were less than two years ago.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, Edwards has raised a little over 2 million dollars, with a million-six on hand. Taylor's raised one point-7 million, and has half a million to spend.
Early on, political watchers said this race would be close. These days they expect Edwards to keep his seat, by a slim margin. For KERA 90.1 I'm Bill Zeeble
Bill Zeeble's email address is