Brad Jewitt has ruined three pairs of shoes since June.
The Maryland 5th Congressional District candidate said his soles simply dissolved under the pressure of 18-hour days spent walking the region with his leave-no-door-unknocked approach to campaigning.
"You've got to work your butt off if you're a Republican in this district," said Jewitt, the former mayor of Berwyn Heights, a Prince George's town of 3,000 people.
It's not just that 55 percent of the district's registered voters are Democrats. Jewett needs every scrap of shoe leather he can muster to run against Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the popular, 12-term incumbent who is also the second-ranking Democrat in the House.
Jewett said district residents' views are more compatible with his than with those of his opponent.
"Hoyer has become a national Democrat who is too liberal for this district," said Jewitt, 34.
Jewitt describes himself as a social moderate, and he supports abortion rights and civil unions for same-sex couples. But he criticizes Hoyer for his opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and his vote against a bill that would have outlawed a measure that opponents call "partial birth" abortion.
Republicans hope the affable Marine will appeal to voters across party lines.
"If Brad could meet enough voters one-on-one, he would win this election," said Audrey E. Scott, a former Republican Prince George's County Council member who now works in the Ehrlich administration. "The question is: Has he been able to get his message out to enough people?"
Jewitt has certainly tried. Last year, he quit his job as an administrator at Marine headquarters to campaign full time. He has also spent $24,000 of his own money. Both moves have meant a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for Jewitt and his wife, Cheryl, who live in a modest Berwyn Heights home that doubles as campaign headquarters.
Jewitt said the sacrifices have paid off. The campaign has raised $128,000, not enough for television spots, but more than the combined total of Hoyer's two previous Republican challengers in the district, which encompasses outer Prince George's County, southern Anne Arundel County and all of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
Hoyer has raised $1.6 million, according to the latest federal filings. But Jewitt said he is not worried about Hoyer's advantages in fundraising and name recognition. He pointed to the 2002 race, in which Republican Joseph T. Crawford received 30.5 percent of the vote despite raising less than $5,000.
"I believe the base vote for a Republican is in the neighborhood of 35 percent," Jewitt said, "even if you have almost no campaign."
Jewitt got involved in politics after he moved to Berwyn Heights from Arlington County in July 2001. His management background attracted several members of the Town Council, and by September he was the president of the town's Parks and Recreation Council. When a vacancy opened on the Town Council in February 2002, he applied for appointment to the seat.
"His work at the Pentagon prepared him to work with budgets," said Ron Shane, who was the mayor of Berwyn Heights.
Three months later, Jewitt succeeded Shane. Local officials describe Jewitt as a personable leader who was popular with constituents and staff members.
"It's almost mesmerizing that he is such a good motivator," said Joe Coleman, the town's director of public works. "He knows how to get the people under him to want to do things."
Coleman said Jewitt was instrumental in securing town funding for a community haunted house in the town center. "It was very, very controversial among the council," he said. "We needed someone who was politically savvy who could get behind it. Brad was that person."
Jewitt touts as signal accomplishments his work on an employee code of conduct, raising staff morale and finalizing plans for a commercial district in town.
Then, on Jan. 8, 2003, his political career, and his life, spun suddenly in a different direction: He was recalled to active duty in the Marine Corps in the months before the invasion of Iraq. Jewett stepped down as mayor to serve for eight months at a stateside location he said he cannot disclose.
He knew he wanted to return to political life but was apprehensive about taking on an entrenched Democrat.
"I had to get to a point where I threw conventional wisdom out the window," he said.
Jewitt said his opponent's House leadership role has been a liability to the area. Hoyer has spent too much time on out-of-district issues, he said, and not enough on residents back home. Last week, Hoyer went on a three-day road trip to stump for Democratic congressional candidates in New York and Pennsylvania.
"He's an absentee congressman," Jewitt said.
One of Jewitt's challenges is convincing voters that he can represent them better than the longtime incumbent. Of particular concern is the 2005 round of base closures. The closures could affect Patuxent River Naval Air Station and Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Center, which drive the economy of Southern Maryland.
Jewitt said he would be a better advocate for the bases than Hoyer because Republicans control the House.
"My opponent has not made friends on the other side of the aisle," he said.
His campaign strategy was to focus initially on voters in Southern Maryland, which has grown increasingly Republican. Jewitt sent out brochures that showed him with President Bush. He emphasized his conservative bona fides by talking about his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion after the first trimester.
In recent months, he has spent considerable time in Prince George's, where Hoyer received almost 80 percent of the vote in 2002. Here, Jewitt has generally steered away from contentious social issues to emphasize local concerns, such as his opposition to a proposed campus connector road in College Park.
"We've got to get at least 35 to 40 percent in Prince George's in order to win," he said. "That's assuming we win in the other counties."
On a recent afternoon, Jewitt spent hours knocking on the doors of Prince George's residents such as Karen Dawson, 22, a senior at the University of Maryland. He spent several minutes talking to her about local issues and national politics before moving on to the next house.
Moments later, Dawson, a registered Democrat, said she couldn't remember Jewitt's name or who his opponent was. Still, she said, "I tend to vote for the Democratic candidate."
Jewitt and his supporters said they were not discouraged.
"To be a Republican in Prince George's County," Scott said, "you've got to be an optimistic person."