CLEVELAND -- In the mountains of north Georgia, Washington is about as popular as flies at a picnic. So, it's little surprise the major candidates battling in a May 11 special election for an empty congressional seat are running hard against big-spending Capitol Hill, even as they audition for a job there.
In this district -- where three-quarters of voters cast a ballot for Republican John McCain in 2008 -- the congressional contest has focused on conservative muscle. It could also provide an early glimpse of the tea party movement's strength this election year.
When it comes to issues, there's scant difference between the six Republicans and one self-described conservative independent seeking the seat held for 18 years by Nathan Deal: Rein in spending, roll back the recently enacted federal health care law and get tough on immigration.
But there's one key difference. Former state Rep. Tom Graves is running with tea party backing.
The 40-year-old developer from Ranger has become a darling of the tea party in Georgia, pushing a package of tax cuts through the state Legislature this year even as the state budget took a nosedive. He was endorsed by the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots and Freedomworks, Dick Armey's grass-roots group that is closely aligned with tea party groups.
He's also received the support of the Washington D.C.-based anti-tax group Club for Growth. Graves has rarely met a tax cut he doesn't like, wants to eliminate czars in the federal government and opposes earmarks.
"The groups that are backing Tom Graves, in that district, those are the ones I'd want backing me," said Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint.
Graves' stiffest competition is expected to be former state Sen. Lee Hawkins, a 59-year-old dentist, who portrays himself as the best hometown option and suggests the support pouring in for Graves from outside the district links him to Washington special interests.
Hawkins describes himself as the steady conservative and talks up his experience in the health care field as a plus, given the issue's high profile. He tells audiences that he supported the fair tax, which would eliminate the income tax, before it was popular. And he hails from Gainesville, one of the more voter-rich pockets of the district that hugs the northwest corner of the state and then dips down to the affluent Atlanta exurbs in Forsyth County.
While Graves and Hawkins have dominated the fundraising, there is a crowded field.
The other Republicans on the ballot are cardiologist Chris Cates; retired neurosurgeon Bert Loftman; former state Sen. Bill Stephens; and textile executive Steve Tarvin. Independent Eugene Moon and Democrat Mike Freeman are also running.
A key question will be whether tea party backing will make a difference.
At Ma Gooch's Restaurant in Cleveland, Edwin Nix took a long swig of coffee before offering his take. "The tea party don't mean nothing to me," he said. "I think it's just the 'rebel raising' factor that appeals to folks."
"To me, you have to prove what you can do, not just holler about it," Nix added.
But Chuck Hampton, a retired employee of a major computer manufacturer, had other thoughts.
"It tells me something," Hampton said. "Will it make me vote for them? Not by itself. But it will make me give them a second look."
After listening to Hawkins speak at a Rotary club in Cumming, Cindy Mills, a Realtor, said she remains undecided.
"I like Lee a lot. But I also feel like Tom (Graves) would get in there and stir things up," she said.
As with most special elections, turnout is expected to be low next Tuesday. The key will be for candidates to get their voters to the polls. Early voting is already under way.
The top vote getter will have little time to savor victory. A runoff could be needed in June if none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote. And the winner will have mere weeks in office before he must face off again in a July 20 primary for a full term.
Deal vacated the seat after nine terms to pursue the Republican nomination for governor.