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Finding a new Linder

LAWRENCEVILLE -- For the past few years, American politics has been frustrating for conservatives.

Through tax debates and health care reform, bailouts and stimulus plans, a large segment of the population has taken up placards and began protesting.

So when one of Congress' most conservative minds decided to vacate one of the most conservative district's seats, there were plenty of protesters ready to step up to become politicians.

With only one candidate with political experience, Georgia's 7th District has eight conservative candidates, sticking to issues like smaller government and controlling waste. The winner of Tuesday's Republican primary will face Democrat Doug Heckman in November.

Even in debates, many of the GOP candidates have said the choice is difficult in a field of similar-minded activists.

The differences, they say, are in their experiences and personalities.

Not long after he entered the District 7 race, Clay Cox turned from the David figure challenging a political giant in state Sen. Don Balfour to the only experienced politician in a current of anti-establishment.

Since Balfour left the race, Cox has been the front-runner. He has the backing of the powerful Atlanta Tea Party as well as the governor and other Georgia leaders.

But Cox's message hasn't changed. The Lilburn state representative believes he can be a voice in Washington for limited government and defending freedoms.

"I am convinced that our republic is at stake. I believe it is going to take serious people with the right combination of experiences to get our country back on track," he said.

As the only man with a political record, Cox has taken most of the hits this political season.

But he said he is proud of his work in the Legislature to cut spending in a budget crunch, enact tort reform and voter ID measures, fight illegal immigration and pass "meaningful" sanctity of life legislation.

"We stand for conservative ideals," Cox said of the candidates in the primary. I think what the race comes down to is who best is qualified to move forward those ideals. ... That's why people have responded to our message."

With all of the angst over government, perhaps none was more dissatisfied than Chuck Efstration.

Taking over the job of helping elect Republicans as the head of the Gwinnett County GOP, Efstration said his frustration wasn't just with the party on the other side of the aisle. He got angry watching Republicans he helped elect make decisions he thought were against GOP values.

"I became so fed up and frustrated with the lack of accountability," he said. "We need new blood in Washington. We need a fighter that is ready to work for our conservative values."

Efstration has tackled this election season like the prosecutor he is.

Often on the offensive in debates, honing in on details on earmarks and questioning Cox's record, the young assistant district attorney has also taken to the Web and town hall meetings to get across his message.

He has been specific in his campaign promises, vowing never to vote on a tax increase, never advocate for an earmark and impose a 12-year term limit.

"That sets me apart and allows people to hold their congressman accountable on those very issues," he said. "We've got a real opportunity here to change the culture in Washington."

When the going got tough, Jef Fincher went to Washington.

A Rotarian who has traveled the world as a flight attendant, Fincher made his first trip to D.C. to protest the government's bailout bill. Then he went back as part of the 9.12 movement. Twice he traveled to Washington to try to convince legislators to stop the health care reform bill, and when he watched from the gallery Congress "shove that legislation down the throats of the American people," a fire was stoked in Fincher's belly.

Fincher, who considers himself an adventurer because of his experiences across the globe, wants to do more than just rail against the current regime in Washington. He wants to change the very fabric of the system, vowing to take a pay cut and block the seniority mores that define the leadership.

"The system is so enthralled and enslaved by this process that its worth fighting for," he said. "I think the government has overstepped a lot of those powers" defined in the Constitution.

Ronnie Grist calls himself a straight-shooter who wants to go gunning after Washington.

The Lawrenceville man said he wants to bring the Southern values of God, country and family to the nation's capital, and he doesn't apologize for failing to be politically correct.

He wants to look at the 14th Amendment to stop illegal immigrants from taking advantage of natural born citizenship by coming to the country pregnant, but he wants to champion the 10th Amendment to give responsibilities not enumerated in the Constitution to the states.

"I'm a working class stiff," said Grist, who worked for the Georgia Technology Authority until it was outsourced by the Legislature. He has since retired. "I shoot from the hip. You know where you stand with me."

As a member of the Sons of the American Legion, Grist has lobbied for veterans and their families, and he wants to play a role in protecting those people.

"Those families have sacrificed a lot," he said. "We need to make sure these kids are taken care of, and their sacrifice doesn't go unnoticed."

Grist is the only candidate in the race who has not been endorsed as pro-life. He says he is against abortion but does not believe he has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body.

Jody Hice's political experience began in the pulpit.

As minister of Bethlehem First Baptist Church, Hice's congregation got involved in Barrow County's legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union over a framed copy in the Ten Commandments at the courthouse. For his part, Hice raised nearly $300,000 to pay the county's legal expenses.

"That was a real turning point in my life," he said of the fight for religious freedom. While the county lost the court battle, a state law was passed to allow the document along with a historical display of laws and it is displayed again in the courthouse.

Years later, Hice found himself in the spotlight again, as he challenged an Internal Revenue Service policy that could have stripped his church of its nonprofit status by endorsing John McCain during a sermon.

"I've got a backbone to fight tough fights. I've done some heavy lifting in America's culture war the last seven years," Hice said, adding that he faced hate letters and threats to stand up for what he believed in.

After a weekly local radio update grew into a national program, Hice stepped down from the pulpit earlier this year, and he said the pieces fit into place to run for Congress.

Now, he's working hard to support the Arizona immigration battle and he is speaking out against what he calls the socialist practices of the government.

"I'm just moving direction in my ministry," he said of the race.

Tom Kirby is the only man in the District 7 race who started campaigning before incumbent U.S. Rep. John Linder announced his retirement.

The Walton County businessman believed in Linder's FairTax fight, but he was fed up with watching politicians ignore the Constitution. He said Linder "did better than most," but he saw long-term congressmen as out of touch.

Kirby wants to bring congressmen home, using technology like webinars to save money, make representatives more accessible to citizens and force lobbyists to present their case to an entire district.

"You've got to come out with a servant's heart," he said.

Like many of his colleagues, Kirby believes in reducing the size of government, and he wants to achieve it by demolishing the departments of education and energy as well as the IRS.

He wants to use his experience in the agriculture and manufacturing industries to invigorate the economy and bring business principles to government.

"It's so important that we get these jobs back, and that's why I'm such a strong believer in the FairTax," he said.

In a race full of men who want to down-size government, Tom Parrott is one of the strict Constitutionalists.

"We're supposed to be guardians up there," he said. "We have to do what we say we're going to do and care more about your rights and your property."

A certified public accountant who has helped companies turn around from bankruptcy, Parrott wants to help "stop the bleeding" in Washington.

A missionary who often travels to India to deliver food and other supplies for people in need, Parrott said he wants to protect the people of District 7.

"I do think my philosophy in governing is different. I don't want to be a lawmaker; I want to be a law repealer," he said.

Parrott is the only military veteran on the GOP ballot, and two of his three sons have served in the Middle East.

"What I want is for somebody to stand up for their principles," the Peachtree Corners resident said. "You have to have focus. It can't be a focus on a preference; it has to be a focus on a principle."

Rob Woodall has the dual experience of being both a political novice and Washington staffer.

As a member of Linder's staff since 1994, the last 10 of which he served as chief of staff, Woodall has a firm grasp on the traditions and structures of Congress, and he said he is the only candidate who could become effective on his first day in office.

"There are so many challenges that I have gotten to struggle with. .... It's given me a chance to wrestle with all those issues," and make firm judgments, he said, preparing him to move on issues such as delineating drinking water as a use for Lake Lanier.

In fact, Woodall believes that, while all of the candidates support Linder's FairTax proposal, he is the only candidate who could become a champion of the legislation, which Woodall helped write, with the right relationships with leadership to keep up the tax reform proposal's momentum.

Without him, he said, the bill will likely be taken up by a more experienced congressman and the debate taken outside of the state.

"There's a huge difference in saying I'm going to support it, and I'm equipped and committed to champion it," Woodall said.