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Texas Democrat fights for survival in GOP hotbed

By Ed Lavandera, CNN
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Chet Edwards braves GOP turf
  • Democrat Rep. Chet Edwards represents conservative Texas district
  • Edwards GOP challenger Bill Flores links him to the Washington establishment
  • Flores campaign's internal polling from September shows Flores with a 19-point lead
  • Edwards: "They've written my obituary in so many elections over the years"

Waco, Texas (CNN) -- The volunteers file into the steamy campaign headquarters wearing bright red Chet Edwards T-shirts. A group of old men pull their "Vets for Chet" hats down tight, waiting for the congressman to fire up the troops.

"I think they might have predicted our demise a little too soon," an energetic Chet Edwards tells the crowd to a round of cheers.

A young volunteer turns to a friend and says he's eager to help the long-term Democratic congressman because, "he needs all the help he can get."

The dozens of supporters standing in the room know Rep. Chet Edwards is in the toughest fight of his political life.

Edwards has long defied the political odds in Texas -- a Democrat repeatedly elected to Congress since 1990 in one of the most conservative districts in the country.

The district includes Waco and Bryan-College Station, home to Baylor and Texas A&M universities, both bastions of conservatism.

In 2004, John Kerry received 30 percent of the vote in Edwards' congressional district. In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama managed 32 percent. Each time, Chet Edwards was elected back to Congress.

Edwards is often called an "endangered species," as many conservative Democrats have disappeared from the political landscape of Texas in the last 20 years.

His political survival skills even catapulted him to the shortlist of potential vice presidential nominees for President Obama in 2008.

Now, Edwards' opponent doesn't miss an opportunity to link Edwards to the unpopular president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Republican challenger, Bill Flores, paints Edwards as part of the Washington establishment.

"Since Nancy Pelosi took over, Edwards votes with her 96 percent of the time," said one Flores campaign advertisement.

Edwards said he feels comfortable as an underdog. "I think voters have known me for years and they've known I've always been independent."

Edwards sounds like a Republican in his campaign commercials, criticizing Democrats for passing health care reform and for being too liberal.

"I think Democrats in Washington have tried to do too much," he said. "I wish some of them had focused more on our economy."

Edwards bills himself as an independent voice in tune with the conservative side of his constituents. It won him the endorsements of the National Rifle Association, the Texas Farm Bureau and many military veterans groups.

But the intense anti-incumbent, anti-Washington mood is blowing swiftly across the rural Texas prairie that makes up much of Edwards' congressional district.

The lunchtime crowd at the Bunkhouse BBQ joint in Clifton, Texas, symbolizes the struggles Edwards is facing this election year.

Burl and Dianne Hammons describe themselves as independent conservatives who've supported Chet Edwards in the past.

They have a son in the military and the congressman's support of military issues often won them over. But this year, the Hammons are voting for Republican Bill Flores, even though they admit they don't know much about him.

"He's [Edwards] done a lot of good, but he's through. He's finished. He's moving into the Pelosi area. ... That doesn't get my vote," Burl Hammons said.

The last month of the campaign promises to be intense. The Edwards campaign accused Flores of supporting plans to privatize veterans health care and Social Security.

Flores said that's not true but said he does support giving veterans the choice to use private doctors at government cost if they don't want to travel to a VA hospital.

According to Flores, those attacks show Edwards is in more trouble than he's ever been before and the Flores campaign said this is the first time the "right kind" of Republican opponent has matched up against Edwards.

Flores grew up in the Texas Panhandle, graduated from Texas A&M and spent 30 years working in the energy industry. This is his first run for public office.

Flores' attempts to paint Edwards as a Washington liberal appears to be working.

Back at the Bunkhouse BBQ joint, Kim Watkins remembers all the votes she cast for Edwards, but said the congressman has swung to the left.

"He's a hometown boy -- he's been around a long time, but I think the Democratic roots are showing up a little more," said Watkins.

The Edwards campaign said it's starting to cut into Flores' lead. According to the campaign's internal polling, Flores had a 10-point lead in mid-September. Their poll this week says the congressman has cut the lead to four points.

But the Flores campaign fired back with its own internal polling taken September 23 that shows Flores with a 19-point lead.

Edwards is used to this story. He often jokes that his Republican opponents start measuring the drapes too soon.

"They've written my obituary in so many elections over the years," he said.