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GOP division could keep Va. seat in Democrats' hands

At least five distinct Tea Party organizations have formed across the 5th District, and activists say more are on the way. So far, seven candidates, including Hurt, are vying for the Republican nomination.

Hurt is doing what he can to win over his conservative opponents. This month, he welcomed members of the Danville T.E.A. Party into his Senate office in Richmond. He issued a mea culpa for his 2004 vote raising taxes and signed a no-tax pledge. And he has signed on to two states' rights measures protecting gun ownership and opposing federal health-care reform.

"The sentiment of the Tea Party is widespread," Hurt said in an interview last week. "People are very concerned about the direction of our country, and I share their concern."

Nonetheless, the feelings against Hurt are growing. Last week, on the day of a large Tea Party rally in Richmond organized in part by groups from the 5th District, dozens of activists swarmed Hurt's Senate office, although he wasn't there. And last weekend, Hay and a handful of Tea Party leaders met to figure out how to block Hurt's nomination.

One option is to unite behind a single candidate. But they also discussed the possibility of recruiting Goode, who has not ruled out an independent bid. That would almost certainly split the Republican vote and deliver the victory to Perriello, which doesn't bother some.

"If Robert Hurt wins, then we have an ideologically inconsistent congressman for a couple of decades," said Bradley S. Rees, a conservative blogger and talk-radio host in Bedford. "I would rather we had an ideologically consistent Democrat who we can hammer on their records. We'll get Perriello in 2012 -- with a stronger, more consistent candidate."

A target from Day One

Perriello has been a target of Republicans from the day he took office. The Yale-educated lawyer and former war-crimes prosecutor in Africa was just weeks into his term when the National Republican Campaign Committee began airing ads against him.

The opposition only grew when the freshman Democrat began to vote. First, he backed the stimulus, then cap and trade, health-care reform and a $154 billion jobs bill.

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group, sent its "Hands Off Our Health Care" bus tour on four passes through the 5th District, making more stops there than anywhere else in the country. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined in, airing television ads criticizing Perriello's vote for health-care reform.

The campaign against Perriello has made him a familiar face, if not always a welcome one. Last week over dinner at an Italian restaurant in the tiny village of Moneta, a customer passing Perriello's table stared in recognition and then muttered to a member of the congressman's staff: "That must be the table where Democrats sit."

In November, the Danville T.E.A. Party scheduled a bonfire rally at which they planned to burn Perriello and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in effigy. The event was canceled after it was criticized and the property owner balked.

Perriello is acutely aware of his vulnerability. He was able to win in 2008 in part by riding the coattails of President Obama, who spurred a surge of African American and college voters who are unlikely to turn out in the same numbers this year. Since winning, he has traveled every weekend to talk to constituents in his district, which stretches from the North Carolina line north to the Charlottesville area, where Perriello is from.

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