Candidates in the increasingly bitter race to represent Northern Virginia's 10th Congressional District have cast their contest in stark, personal terms that stray from the ever-present suburban flash points of traffic and schools.
Challenger James Socas (D), a former investment banker, has portrayed 12-term incumbent Frank R. Wolf (R) as a right-wing religious extremist who is out of touch with a fast-changing district. Wolf, in turn, casts his opponent as a lightweight and reckless carpetbagger from California seeking to use his dot-com fortune to buy an election.
The ferocity of the exchanges reflects, in part, the hard-charging styles of the opponents, each of whom has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance.
The campaign's harsh tone also has intensified in a political environment in which each of the candidates can easily see the logic of going negative.
As a Democratic challenger in a traditionally Republican district, Socas has spent months trying to break into the consciousness of district voters. He has taken a scattershot approach, setting up an anti-Wolf Web site and issuing a host of missives meant to undercut Wolf's edge as the longtime incumbent -- his advantages include widespread name recognition, decades of working with constituents and strong local GOP organizations.
"Who is Frank Wolf?" reads a typical Socas campaign statement. "Do you really know your Congressman?" reads another.
Wolf has alternated between trying to stay above the fray and slamming Socas as an unknown outsider with questionable motives.
With a flurry of promises, campaign pronouncements and charges and countercharges, the candidates have worked to define themselves -- and each other -- by taking on the issues they hope will sway voters in the wide-ranging and wealthy district.
The district covers a swath of Northern Virginia stretching west from western Fairfax, across northern Prince William and Fauquier, through Loudoun, Clarke, Warren and Frederick counties. It includes the cities of Manassas, Manassas Park and Winchester.
The candidates portray themselves as hardworking advocates for commuters, taxpayers and children. Wolf says that he is an advocate for human rights around the world, that he has worked to reform how FBI offices communicate to better fight terrorism, and that he has been a leader in regional anti-gang efforts.
Socas says that as a businessman, he has mastered the intricacies of finance and understands the "seismic shift" for U.S. workers as technology makes many jobs obsolete. He calls his pragmatic approach a key quality.
The two, though, have taken broad and personal swipes at each other. One of the sharpest exchanges has come over Socas's contention that Wolf is pursuing "the religious right's agenda" in a moderate district.
"He is a deep religious conservative. He legislates his faith," Socas said, citing Wolf's efforts to ban abortion, pass a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, tighten rules on gambling and fight the persecution of Christians overseas.
"He's spent far too much time on the extremist causes," Socas said, arguing that Wolf presents "a much showier -- purposely showier -- expression of faith than people of true faith often have."