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Tea party candidate behind slavery ad makes gains in Ala. Senate race

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; 4:46 PM

MONTGOMERY, ALA. -- Could Rick "Gather Your Armies" Barber win the GOP nod on Tuesday in Alabama's 2nd Congressional District?

The conventional wisdom says no. Front-runner Martha Roby, a "Young Gun" of the National Republican Congressional Committee, beat back Barber in the June 1 primary, 49 percent to 29 percent, barely missing an outright win. If Nikki Haley's campaign for South Carolina governor is any indication, such a strong showing virtually ensures that Roby will snare the nomination in Tuesday's runoff.

Still, consider that Barber, 35, a small-businessman and former Marine, came out of nowhere to take his 30 percent with an intense, "tea party"-themed campaign. He has gone after not only first-term incumbent Bobby Bright (D) and the usual Democratic suspects in Washington, but also Roby herself, whom he deems too liberal and not passionate enough to drive the change needed in Congress.

"Everybody will know when Rick Barber shows up in Congress," Barber said in an interview this week. "I met with Martha Roby, but I wasn't inspired by her."

Barber's memorable ads -- one of them depicting George Washington imploring Barber to "gather your armies" in revolt over federal taxation and spending policies, and another with Abraham Lincoln equating federal policies with slavery -- may have helped his chances, too. The ads drew national attention, much of it unflattering, but they did exactly what Barber said he was hoping. They attracted the media play he was seeking and boosted his name recognition among 2nd District conservatives.

Consider also that Roby, 34, a lawyer and Montgomery City Council member who has been running for Bright's seat for more than a year, failed to close the deal on June 1 despite an overwhelming head start, financial advantage and edge in name recognition. Roby, too, is running against current leadership in Washington. But, presumably on the advice of her ample roster of Washington campaign consultants, she has pulled her punches against Bright, a popular, conservative member of the "Blue Dog" coalition of Congress. The result is that her campaign has seemed less focused than Barber's.

"Everybody knows how hard it is to beat an incumbent," Barber said. "In order to fire someone, you have to give them a reason. She hasn't done that."

Barber said an internal poll showed that many of Roby's voters on June 1 didn't choose their candidate until they entered the voting booth, and that they picked Roby because they recognized her name from TV ads. Now, that advantage has diminished, Barber said, and many of those voters could choose him this time. Barber also argues that many more of his supporters, who are of the highly energized tea party variety, will turn out for the runoff than will Roby's fans.

All of it translates into at least a chance, he said, that he could pull off an upset win on Tuesday.

In an interview this week, Roby declined to discuss Barber's campaign, but she said she is continuing to work hard through the weekend. Privately, those associated with Roby's campaign said they "feel very good" about their chances Tuesday. Bright supporters said much the same, expecting Barber to make up some ground from his June performance but predicting that it would be very difficult for him to surpass the lead Roby established six weeks ago.

Whoever wins on Tuesday faces a tougher than expected general election campaign against Bright, the son of a sharecropper and former mayor of Montgomery who is hugely popular despite his overwhelmingly Republican-leaning district.

"I like Bright," Barber said. "He's nice. But he's got that D by his name, and he voted for Speaker Pelosi. He's for that agenda."

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