BOISE, IDAHO -- It's been more than a decade, but Rep. Larry LaRocco (D-Idaho) hasn't forgotten the lesson he learned as a young aide to the late Sen. Frank Church in the campaign that ended the political career of Idaho's most enduring liberal Democrat.
Church faltered in that 1980 campaign under a blistering and largely unanswered assault from the GOP right, which convinced a slim majority of Idaho voters that the veteran lawmaker and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was soft on defense and had helped engineer the "giveaway" of the Panama Canal.
Eleven years later, LaRocco -- elected narrowly to the House last fall from a district that hadn't sent a Democrat to Washington in more than a quarter-century -- is working to keep himself from becoming embroiled in another divisive foreign policy debate in one of the nation's more conservative states.
Along with Idaho's other Democratic House member, Richard H. Stallings, LaRocco voted last month against giving President Bush the authority to wage immediate war against Iraq and in favor of continued diplomatic and economic efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to the Persian Gulf crisis. The state's two GOP senators voted to grant Bush the congressional mandate he sought.
Last week, Sen. Steve Symms, the Republican who defeated Church, charged at a northern Idaho Lincoln Day dinner that Stallings and LaRocco were "more concerned about getting George Bush out of the White House than getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait."
Though many political observers here say they think the criticism was primarily directed at Stallings, who is mulling a challenge to Symms in 1992, LaRocco didn't let the senator's broadside go unchallenged, as he believed a "too gentlemanly" Church did in his final campaign.
Accusing Symms of "cheap shots" and "sloganeering," the 44-year-old LaRocco -- a former Army intelligence officer -- said, "I've never questioned anyone else's patriotism and I don't expect anyone to question mine."
The Democratic alternative he backed, LaRocco explained, would have given an effective international economic blockade more time to prevail, allowed for the defense of U.S. troops in the field and did not rule out the use of force later if Bush returned to Congress to ask for it.
As LaRocco kept up a hectic schedule of public appearances in the Boise area last week, the explanation appeared to be holding up well.
"I think his vote was incorrect, but I respect his right to make it," said Arthur J. Berry, 40, a Boise businessman and self-described conservative Republican. "No one's focusing on the vote. They're focusing on the solution."
Despite such expressions of support, there is at least a small faction here who believe LaRocco's vote could come back to haunt him.
"Among our people it will certainly have some effect," predicted Dave Bivens, director of state affairs for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, a conservative organization of ranchers and farmers whose 31,000 members have a loud voice in Idaho politics. "Our people believe if there's a challenge, then let's get on with it."
Though the gulf war came up only infrequently during LaRocco's visit home last week -- and usually only at his own instigation -- the announcement last Thursday that Idaho had suffered its first casualties with the deaths of two airmen in the crash of their EF-111A radar-jamming plane may serve to bring the war home and escalate what has been a quiet debate.
During LaRocco's visit to a veterans medical center, for instance, a World War II combat veteran sharply criticized his position on the war. "I think he's wrong," said H.T. Hubbard, 73. "He's going with the rabble-rousers, the protesters."
But even there, some former servicemen congratulated LaRocco for having the guts to vote his conscience. "If he's honest and straightforward, he won't have any problem," said Gordon Williams, a 57-year-old combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam who says he believes firmly the United States has no business sending the young to die in the gulf.
That kind of sentiment has buoyed LaRocco and his supporters, who believe that his vote last month in Congress will stand the test of time, as casualties mount and the current enthusiasm for the war begins to ebb.
"I'm a former stockbroker and I know when a stock is at its high," LaRocco said. "Voting your conscience and your intellect and your background is not an impeachable offense. I will fight back if my patriotism is attacked."