The Tea Party In Florida: The Fiery Challenger

In a Florida congressional race, Republican challenger Allen West is tapping Tea Party support in his attempt to unseat incumbent Rep. Ron Klein.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Republicans hoping to take back control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming midterm elections have a lot riding on the Tea Party. Across the country, conservative Republican candidates with strong Tea Party support are challenging incumbent Democrats. We have reports now on three races: the first from NPR's Greg Allen on a tight contest in Florida.

GREG ALLEN: The battle is between Democratic incumbent Ron Klein and his Tea Party-backed challenger, Republican Allen West. They're facing off in a congressional district that includes Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach and is home to many retirees and affluent voters. It might seem improbable then that this district has produced West, who's turned out to be one of the election season's more fiery candidates.

Mr. ALLEN WEST (Republican Congressional Candidate, Florida): We need to meet in places and start talking about restoring our liberty and fighting back against a tyrannical government. It starts right here, it starts right now with each one of you that's gathered here today.

ALLEN: That speech, given about a year ago, has received more than two million views on YouTube. It helped West raise more than $4 million in his attempt to unseat Democrat Ron Klein. West, an African-American, is a former Army lieutenant colonel. He was forced to retire after an incident in Iraq in which he fired a gun near a detainee's head, an effort, he said, to get information about a possible ambush. His supporters see that as just another sign that West is willing to take tough action when necessary.

This is West's second time challenging Klein. Two years ago, with little money or outside support, he drew 45 percent of the vote. This time he has money, an anti-incumbent tide, and a Tea Party surge in his favor. Klein has run ads attacking West as an extremist and a person who preaches personal responsibility but who doesn't live up to his words.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: The IRS filed an $11,000 lien against West for back taxes. Three liens were placed on his home for unpaid bills. And a judge ordered West to pay over $5,000 in past-due credit card bills. Allen West, the wrong values for South Florida.

ALLEN: West says the IRS lien was a mistake, and as for the other unpaid bills, he says they accumulated while he was in Afghanistan.

Mr. WEST: So if he wants to attack my wife, who was back here trying to maintain a household with our two daughters while I was over protecting him, that's where I have a problem with him.

ALLEN: Klein is a moderate Democrat, an ardent supporter of Israel and a proponent of President Obama's health care overhaul and stimulus package - both of which he voted for. In a recent debate, he told West that his vow to stick to his guns and reject working with the other party won't fly in Congress.

Representative RON KLEIN (Democrat, Florida): The bottom line is, what are you positions? And if it's about divisiveness (unintelligible) my opponent's comments at some point where I don't believe in inclusiveness, I don't believe in working with other people. That's ridiculous. That kind of behavior will not create one job.

ALLEN: Polls show it's a tight race, but Democrats are throwing everything they have at it, including President Obama, who was here this week for a Ron Klein fundraiser.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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