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."
Wolf notes that such issues as gambling limits and the amendment to ban gay marriage have bipartisan support. He also says his human rights activism has benefited Muslims in Africa and Kosovo, Buddhists in China and Jews in the former Soviet Union. "What he said, it's an attack on me personally, on my faith," Wolf said.
"You have somebody who has no record, who has done, frankly, nothing," Wolf said. "He just makes these issues up and throws them out."
The scuffle over more terrestrial issues also has been intense.
On transportation, Socas assails Wolf for not managing to stretch rail to Dulles International Airport during his tenure. Socas's campaign literature also highlights the fact that the 10th District has no Metro stations. Wolf responds by pointing to his longtime advocacy for funding Metro and progress in paying for its extension westward. He also says that the district has no Metro stops because it was redrawn and moved away from suburbs that Metro serves.
Wolf points to decades of other transportation improvements he helped orchestrate, from transferring the control of area airports to a local authority to widening Interstate 66. Socas contends that snarled traffic makes his argument that Wolf has come up short.
Regional transportation experts say state and federal funding for roads and transit has not kept pace with Northern Virginia's spectacular growth in recent decades. Some planners blame local governments for enacting land use rules that allow, or promote, scattered home construction that worsens traffic.
On education, Socas knocks Wolf by saying schools in the district get a smaller percentage of federal funds than the Virginia-wide average. But Wolf says that fact is a reflection of the district's wealth, since the complex federal formula governing such funding is based in part on poverty indicators that give lower priority to richer regions. Socas complains that Wolf should work harder to change those federal formulas to help local communities coping with swift population growth; Wolf says Socas fails to understand the federal role in education.
The two differ sharply on such social issues as abortion. Wolf opposes legalized abortion while Socas supports it. Socas has accused Wolf of being "anti-women and anti-family," in part because of that stand and Wolf's vote against the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to three months of unpaid leave for the birth of a child or to care for a relative with a serious illness.
Wolf opposed the 1993 measure because he was concerned it could lead to job losses in a time of recession, said Wolf's campaign manager, Dan Scandling. "It has proven to work well and he supports it now," Scandling said.
Each candidate says his opponent can't be trusted.
Socas, who has accused Wolf of being "dishonest and dishonorable," filed a complaint Oct. 12 with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. One of Wolf's congressional aides attended a recent National Association of Retired Federal Employees forum in Wolf's place. Socas says the appearance meant that Wolf was using taxpayer funds to help his campaign.
Scandling says the aide properly attended the gathering in his official capacity and read a letter on Wolf's behalf. "They are on a fishing expedition. They are just trying to slime the congressman," Scandling said.
Wolf says that Socas moved to the district last year and still owns a home in California while he rents in Virginia. "I guess he pays property taxes to the San Francisco schools," Wolf said, noting that his opponent says he's refraining from buying a home here because "he's waiting for the market to slow down. . . . Come on!"
"He's quite frankly trying to buy an election," Wolf said. Socas dismisses that contention.
Socas argues that he's no slouch when it come to taxes in Virginia. "I've paid more in taxes last year to the state of Virginia than Frank Wolf has paid in many years," he said. He also acknowledges a reluctance to buy into the region's real estate market, saying, "The housing market right now is at a peak."