Candidate for Virginia’s 10th District congressional seat Democrat John Foust campaigns at the annual Lovettsville Oktoberfest in Lovettsville, Va., last month. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

For 15 years, Democrat John W. Foust has pursued elective office with a blazing intensity that goes against his everyman image as a former steelworker from Pennsylvania who paid his own way through college.

It started with a failed bid for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1999. Four years later, Foust challenged a Republican incumbent for a seat on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, but he lost that race, too. Four years after that, he fought a rematch and won, and he easily held on to his seat for a second term in 2011.

Now, again hungry for higher office, Foust is running for Congress — vying against state Del. Barbara J. Comstock (R-Fairfax) to replace longtime Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R) in Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District.

But here’s the rub: Foust is not a very polished candidate. Even his most ardent supporters say so. His appearance — mustache, square glasses, oversized jackets — doesn’t seem to have changed much through the decades. He meanders toward his points, and his “uhhs” and “ahhs” during debates and in interviews evoke winces from those watching him. He sometimes seems more comfortable talking about sidewalk improvements than foreign policy or the federal budget.

Foust has staked $550,000 of his own money on the campaign. He is unafraid to lob blistering TV attacks at his opponent, and, in all, his campaign is spending millions on a sophisticated ad effort that has left many a viewer weary of the intensity and vitriol of this election.

Candidate for Virginia’s 10th District congressional seat Democrat John Foust campaigns at the annual Lovettsville Oktoberfest in Lovettsville, Va., last month. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

All of which presents an unusual political contradiction in the 10th District: a fiercely competitive candidate who seems so ill at ease on the trail that it appears sometimes to get in the way of his ability to explain why he wants the job so much.

Foust’s discomfort as a campaigner has been evident throughout the year.

At a recent debate in Loudoun County, a crucial battleground within the 10th District because of its outsize population of independent voters, Foust appears unprepared. He glances at his notes when answering questions, while Comstock delivers sharp responses that stick to her campaign script.

“I also want to point out that, uh, Delegate Comstock has a history of extraordinary, uh, partisanship,” says Foust, 63, raising a central theme in his campaign. “She’s representing every one of the, uh, she’s representing, uh, she’s been a lobbyist with the Koch brothers. These are not the types of leaders that are gonna go to Washington and solve our problems.”

Laurie Swift, who plans to vote for Foust, says she winced at his performance that morning.

“I was hoping he would present better,” she says. “But I like his concepts at the end of the day, and I’m not going to vote for whoever gives the best speech.”

Nancy Smith, policy director for the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, says a sense of authority gives her an idea of who will be an effective law­maker.

“I didn’t get that impression from Mr. Foust,” she says. “Just the basic presentation skills were lacking.”

One poorly worded moment in particular has come to haunt the Democrat.

During a speech in Leesburg in August, Foust criticized Comstock’s career as a Washington lobbyist by suggesting that she’s never had “a real job.”

Comstock pounced at the chance to portray her opponent as a sexist — and to repeatedly characterize the comment as belittling to a woman who chose to be a stay-at-home mom before earning a law degree through night courses. By all accounts, it was a major stumble that potentially neutralized Foust’s plan to win over women by highlighting Comstock's conservative voting record on reproductive issues.

Asked to explain his awkwardness on the campaign trail, Foust says that it doesn’t concern him — but he owns up to his misstep in plain language.

“I could have used another term and could probably have made the point better,” he concedes. “We all know Barbara Comstock has had real jobs.”

McLean’s advocate

Foust stepped into Northern Virginia’s deceptively polite political arena during the late 1990s as the head of the McLean Citizens Association.

From that perch, he pushed for wider roads in his family’s community and — much to the fury of regional leaders fighting for federal transit dollars — against the construction of an elevated Metro line through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport.

Once on the county board, Foust’s positions often remained rooted in the concerns of his constituents in a historically Republican district that traces the Potomac River through McLean and Great Falls.

He fought to make sure the Dulles rail project had minimal impact on the surrounding community; pushed for reduced noise levels near a Metrorail yard in Falls Church; pushed for a new Dominion Virginia Power substation to be designed to fit in with the surrounding community; and demanded more parking near stations to keep commuters from leaving their cars in ­residential neighborhoods in McLean.

That helps explain his popularity among constituents — who know him for an easy touch and a local focus.

Although Foust rarely leads discussions on the county board, his teasing wit, usually served dry, has endeared him to board colleagues — even those who have disagreed with him.

“It’s hard not to like John,” says U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), who was chairman of the Fairfax board during the Dulles rail deliberations and described Foust as “an affable, warm person” — even though they were on opposite sides of the debate over whether to build the rail line overhead or underground.

“That was not an easy issue,” Connolly said, noting that Foust was a “calm presence in the room” even as he was under intense pressure from those who opposed the entire project. “I think John tried to represent his constituents, especially in McLean, who felt very strongly about that.”

Foust says he is driven by an open-roads outlook that stems from his youth in Johnstown, Pa., where he grew up and, eventually, put himself through college by working summers inside a steel mill.

He went on to earn an MBA and a law degree and became a construction attorney. He settled in McLean, where he raised two sons with his wife, Marilyn Jerome, a partner in an obstetrics practice in the District.

Foust has tried to cast that history as a real-world counternarrative to Comstock, a lobbyist and former GOP opposition researcher whom Foust describes as a practitioner of the kind of extreme partisanship that led to last year’s federal government shutdown.

It’s a potentially resonant argument in a swing district stretching from the Washington suburbs to the Shenandoah Valley, where population changes have given new electoral power to moderate, pragmatic voters averse to ideological warfare.

“I just want to see Congress start to work again,” Foust says. “You can go after individual issues, or you can go to the fundamental operations — and then the issues can take care of themselves.

“Congress is so dysfunctional right now and there’s so much partisanship, I want to be part of a group that changes the culture. No one person can do that by themselves. But I believe the culture in Congress has to change so that people are again willing to compromise.”

‘People really like me’

Foust is most successful connecting with voters in one-on-one encounters.

During a recent swing through McLean, he meets with 12 residents to celebrate the completion of a new sidewalk along what for years had been a rural road.

With no lectern or cameras, he delivers an impassioned speech about the importance of sidewalks in a neighborhood where cars tend to speed past. He receives hearty applause from parents watching their kids ride their bikes along the new sidewalk.

Afterward, Foust observes,“People really like me and I like them,” and then adds: “It takes a while.”

Taking “a while” may yet work out for Foust.

The Democrat is not widely expected to beat Comstock this time, in a race where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently canceled nearly all of its planned advertising.

But even if Foust loses in two weeks, 2016 will be a remarkably different election year, with a presidential contest at the top of the ticket likely to draw out far more Democratic voters than typically turn out in off years. In addition, the 10th District could tilt even more toward Democrats by then, and more people would know about a county supervisor who had previously worked in obscurity as chair of the board’s audit committee.

Republicans and Democrats alike agree that Foust could come back a stronger candidate next time.

He has proven an ability to raise money — and a willingness to spend his own — that will give him an advantage in the minds of national Democratic officials, who would rather nominate a self-funder than spend the party’s dollars in such an expensive market.

Plus, most candidates’ prowess on the campaign trail improves the second time around.

Foust shows his growing comfort with constituents on a recent Friday evening at the home of Shaista Keating in Fairfax Station during a brainstorming session on how to improve schools in Fairfax County.

“I know you must be tired, so you don’t have to stick around for this,” Keating says to Foust after he addresses the group about wanting to foster more support for science, technology, engineering and math courses.

Foust laughs while sitting next to his wife. And then he sinks deeper into his seat on the couch, intent on staying longer.