On a brisk fall Saturday, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. arrived at a rally for volunteers about to head out, clipboards in hand, to campaign door-to-door in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County.

The Democrat stopped to hug longtime supporter Ginny Peters, then smiled and reached out to shake hands with Barbara Selzer, 69, a retired schoolteacher and Fairfax resident.

Selzer was giving up her Saturday to canvass for the guy, and her jean shirt was emblazoned with blue "Moran for Congress" stickers. So did that make her a big-time Moran supporter?

Well, not exactly.

"Oh, I'm a Moran person," she said after the white-haired congressman shook her hand and moved on. Then she lowered her voice. "I think he's a bit of a jerk, but every time I check his votes, it's what I want."

Ambivalent views are often expressed in Virginia's 8th District, where voters have elected Moran to seven terms in the House despite ethics controversies and personal embarrassments dating to his tenure as mayor of Alexandria in the 1980s.

Moran's supporters, and he himself, say 2004 has been a life-changing year for Moran. He survived a bruising primary challenge this spring by lobbyist Andrew M. Rosenberg. He also got married for the third time. His wife, LuAnn L. Bennett, has purchased a $5 million home for them overlooking the Potomac River in Arlington. The spot was once owned by the family of Jordan's Queen Noor.

"There is no doubt Jim has had a rough few years, but his life is settling down," said Mame Reiley, his former chief of staff. "He's weathered the storm, and he's learned from it. He's going to come out of this period a better congressman."

However, his Republican opponent, Lisa Marie Cheney, has hammered away at Moran's character, calling him an "embarrassment" whose personal problems have made him ineffectual. In addition to Cheney, 39, an Alexandria native and owner of a small defense consulting firm, Moran faces independent candidate James T. Hurysz, 57, a quality control manager and Arlington resident.

Sitting down for an interview in his district office, Moran, 59, said the primary was a "learning experience," which forced him to return to a grass-roots, back-to-basics campaign to reconnect with his core supporters. He is continuing that effort now, he said.

"I've been doing everything I can to reach out and understand why people voted against me, "Moran said. "They were trying to send a message. I have to be more sensitive in the way I express myself, and I have to be more thoughtful in the positions I take. I clearly had to work hard to communicate with new voters. It was the new voters I lost; people didn't know me."

Moran's district -- which includes Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church and parts of Fairfax County -- was redrawn in 2001 to include a spur to Reston. In the primary, Rosenberg garnered 41 percent of the vote and some key precincts in the new areas of Fairfax County, to Moran's 59 percent.

Moran's most loyal political base remains the area around the Del Ray community in Alexandria, where he got his start in politics in the late 1970s as a civic leader. He was later elected to the Alexandria City Council and was the city's mayor from 1985 to 1991.

He grew up the eldest of seven children in Natick, Mass., a working-class community near Boston. His political philosophy was shaped in part by the progressive views of his strict Irish American parents, according to a brother, state Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria).

Moran's solidly liberal voting record throughout his seven terms in Congress -- he favors abortion rights, advocates gun control and opposed the war in Iraq -- has served him well in his district, which includes many of the region's most liberal and Democratic-leaning voters.

He sits on the House Appropriations Committee, and on the stump, he peppers his speeches with references to funding he has helped procure for local projects, such as the $3.6 million for restoration of the Four Mile Run watershed and $740,000 for computers for Alexandria police cruisers and other equipment.

But public interest groups have criticized Moran for accepting, among other things, an unsecured $25,000 loan from a drug company lobbyist whose bill he supported and a $447,000 debt-consolidation mortgage package from a credit card giant whose legislation he backed. In 1995, he was involved in a shoving match on the House floor with a colleague, for which Moran later apologized. In 1999, Moran's wife filed for divorce after an argument to which police were called.

He infuriated the Jewish community and some members of Congress in 2003 when he told an antiwar forum in Reston, "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war in Iraq, we would not be doing this."

His brother Brian said: "The guy has made mistakes, and he finds it hard to understand why people would dislike him to the point they'll run against him or support somebody else. But he has a lot of resolve, and he's got to win the trust and respect of a lot of people back."

Sunday night, the congressman was quizzed again about the 2003 remarks during a campaign debate at Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon.

"My explanation remains the same: It was an attempt to make the point that anyone who opposed the war can achieve their objective by working within their sphere of influence, whether their political party or community of faith," Moran told the small group of voters.

Moran's own polling suggests he remains vulnerable to the perception of anti-Semitism, he said, and some voters agree.

"He never seems to clarify. . . . He just says, 'I didn't say it.' It's discouraging," said Ray Stone, 79, a Fairfax County resident and Democrat who said she probably would not vote for Moran.

Moran said he would take part in debates at several synagogues in the coming weeks to clarify his position on Israel and the Jewish community in hopes that Jewish voters "understand what I stand for," even if they vote against him.

"I'm working as hard as I can. Yesterday, I had five different debates. I don't get a half an hour a day to talk to my wife. I don't know how much harder I can work," Moran said.

His face brightened when he mentioned his wife of five months, who runs a commercial real estate firm in the District. The couple were introduced last year by Moran's eldest daughter, Mary Elise, and were married in June.

"It bowls me over how generous and nurturing she is," he said. "She's the best thing about me. I married way, way up."

He mused about some day in the far-off future retiring to a farm to raise fruit and vegetables and play with his grandchildren but declared that there was plenty of fight left in him, even after this rockiest of years.

"I am prepared to work hard enough to win," Moran said. "It's basically up to me."

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. said, "I have to be more sensitive in the way I express myself, and I have to be more thoughtful in the positions I take."