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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow is a big primary day across the country with votes in 12 states, among them California where Republicans will pick their nominees for the Senate and for the governorship. Republicans in Nevada will decide whether a Tea Party favorite is their choice to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

BLOCK: Virginia also holds its Republican primary tomorrow. And one closely watched race is in the sprawling 5th Congressional District, which covers historically strong conservative territory. Seven candidates are vying for the GOP nomination. They're hungering to take back a congressional seat that was snagged by a Democrat two years ago in a shocking upset. That freshman incumbent, Tom Perriello, is considered highly vulnerable. And Republicans are making the seat a special focus of attention.

Mr. ISAAC WOOD (Communications Director, University of Virginia Center for Politics): This looks like a district that's ripe for the taking.

BLOCK: That's Isaac Wood, who follows House races at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. He says Tom Perriello's votes for the president's stimulus plan, for cap and trade and for the health care overhaul could make him a one-term congressman.

Mr. WOOD: I think Perriello was sticking his neck out on those votes, and that's something he pledged to do when he ran for Congress. He talked about conviction politics, which I call don't-try-this-at-home politics because he decided he was going to vote the way that he felt was right, regardless of what the polls said.

BLOCK: Two years ago, Tom Perriello squeaked by the popular long-time Republican incumbent by just 727 votes in a district that went for John McCain. Perriello is 35 and he's a newcomer to this business. He had never run for office before.

Representative TOM PERRIELLO (Democrat, Virginia): You know, I don't come out of party politics. I don't come out of politics. And it's just hard for me to see the kind of economic crisis here, the kind of good, decent people trying to find jobs and then go up to Washington and see that kind of just soulless, spineless absurdity.

BLOCK: Last week, I spent time with Perriello in his Virginia district. It's a big one, the size of New Jersey, which means he's put a lot of miles on his white Ford Ranger pickup truck.

(Soundbite of truck starting)

BLOCK: There is Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio, granola bars in the glove compartment and a visit on the schedule to a woman who could be his oldest constituent, Irene Lewis.

Rep. PERRIELLO: How are you doing, Ms. Lewis?

Ms. IRENE LEWIS: I'm doing pretty good.

Rep. PERRIELLO: Good. I'm Congressman Tom Perriello and I understand you're turning 105 years old tomorrow. Is that correct?

Ms. LEWIS: Yes, sir.

Rep. PERRIELLO: Well, I wanted to come by and personally wish you a happy birthday.

Ms. LEWIS: I appreciate that.

Rep. PERRIELLO: Well, how are you feeling?

BLOCK: Her granddaughter tells us Irene Lewis still plants her own tomatoes. Today, she's dressed up for the visit in a skirt and hose and low heels.

Ms. LEWIS: The older I get, the more I forget.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. PERRIELLO: Well, we hope you see many more birthdays. I look forward to your 110th in five years.

Ms. LEWIS: I don't know about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Spend time with him and you do sense that Tom Perriello isn't so comfortable with small talk, the backslapping and glad-handing that's the stuff of a campaign. He's got a serious intensity, went to Yale for college and law school. Over the course of my two days with him, in conversations about his Catholic faith and conviction politics, he folded in references to Martin Luther King, "Seinfeld," the film director M. Night Shyamalan and Cato, the statesman of ancient Rome. His passion is a granular focus on the local economy and jobs.

Rep. PERRIELLO: Good afternoon, everybody.

BLOCK: Last Tuesday, Congressman Perriello stopped by the Monogram Snack Food plant in Martinsville, Virginia, close by the North Carolina border. Martinsville suffers from the state's highest unemployment rate, a whopping 22 percent. This factory turns out more processed meat snacks than you can dream of: Slim Jim, Hannah's Big Pickled Sausage, Jeff Foxworthy Jerky.

Rep. PERRIELLO: ...and also finding the sectors that are going to be there, like food. People are going to keep eating jerky.

BLOCK: Perriello is here to talk up a local benefit from the stimulus plan he voted for - a nearly $6 million federal loan guarantee so this company can refinance at more favorable rates.

Rep. PERRIELLO: ...really appreciate everything you all do on the line and appreciate the business having the courage to expand in a tough economic environment.

BLOCK: Monogram is an unusual success story for Martinsville. It's nearly doubled its employees since September. But all around Southside Virginia, you see one abandoned factory after another - furniture and textile plants that have closed their doors, gone overseas, whacked by NAFTA.

And when the congressman sits down to talk with the workers, jobs are what's on everyone's mind.

Rep. PERRIELLO: I mean, I think part of what got us into this mess was we said to people we're going to take your job away but we're going to give you really cheap stuff at Wal-Mart. It's going to work out great for you, and it doesn't. People need a job. They need to be able to support their family and...

Unidentified Woman #1: You got to have a job to go to Wal-Mart.

Rep. PERRIELLO: That's right.

BLOCK: Perriello talks up his votes to extend unemployment insurance and to close tax loopholes for companies sending jobs overseas. He talks about the promise of using local biomass and cow manure for energy.

Back in his truck, between glances at his BlackBerry, Tom Perriello gets fired up thinking about the many thousands of jobs lost in his district. He's frustrated by what he calls the games played in Washington, especially by Republican leaders, whom he considers morally empty.

Rep. PERRIELLO: You see these jobs bills that could actually be putting people to work, that are smart, pragmatic solutions. And you see them playing games. It's like, go spend a day with someone trying to find a job. Go spend, you know, a week trying to live on minimum wage. And then come back and have the nerve to try to kill this jobs bill by doing something that will create a 30-second spot in the election.

BLOCK: Tom Perriello comes from a well-known family near Charlottesville. His father was a pediatrician. After law school, he spent two years living in Sierra Leone, working on human rights and war crimes cases. He came back home and put his Catholic faith to work through progressive religious groups. And he says it was in part his faith that called him to politics.

Last August, when the health care debate reached fever pitch, Tom Perriello held 21 town hall meetings in his district - more than any other congressman. He would stay for five hours at a time, listening to people vent their anger.

He says he welcomed that debate at home, but not the million dollars in ads that interest groups took out against him.

Rep. PERRIELLO: The demagoguing about death panels and other just outright lies are not worthy of the American people, and they poison and corrupt a sacred space of public trust.

BLOCK: Perriello doesn't mince words about the failures of Democrats either, who he says take a good, bold idea and then cut it in half to appeal to the center.

Rep. PERRIELLO: I think one problem that a lot of liberals have is that they feel like once they pass good policy, and they get The New York Times editorial board to say it was good policy, that should be the end of the conversation. No, your job is to go out and communicate with your constituents, go out and make the case.

And yes, it sucks that the other side has $100 million worth of free propaganda every week that we have to go up against, but roll up your sleeves, get to work, make the case, because the facts are on our side. But what do I know?

BLOCK: What he does know is that days after he voted yes on the health care overhaul bill, his family was threatened. Tea Party bloggers posted his brother's address online. Someone stole his brother's security lights and cut the gas line to his grill. The FBI is investigating.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, how are you doing?

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, how are you doing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Very bad.

BLOCK: Last Tuesday night, Tom Perriello opened his campaign office in Martinsville, rallying the troops with a populist message.

Rep. PERRIELLO: We've got to have a level playing field. We can't have these corporate loopholes for jobs to go overseas.

Unidentified Man #3: That's right.

Rep. PERRIELLO: We can't have the trade deals that sell out the American worker, just so that Wall Street can make a few bucks.

Unidentified Man #3: That's right.

Unidentified Woman #2: That's it.

Rep. PERRIELLO: We need...

BLOCK: The tiny room was packed with volunteers drinking in his pledge to make Southside Virginia the capital of the new energy economy.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. PERRIELLO: It's getting hot in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. PERRIELLO: But it needs to get hot in here. We need to feel that heat.

Unidentified Man #3: That's right.

BLOCK: And Tom Perriello told them a year and a half in Congress hasn't been enough.

Rep. PERRIELLO: I need a little more time.

Unidentified Man #3: You're doing a fine job.

BLOCK: Martinsville is Democratic territory in a red district. Perriello will need a strong showing in places like this to overcome the district's deep conservative leanings, and he won't have Barack Obama's coattails to help him.

Perriello supporter John Bowles knows it will be a struggle.

Mr. JOHN BOWLES: Well, it's going to be tough. We're not going to roll over and play dead. I mean that's pretty evident here tonight. That's what I'm excited about. So I'm ready to go.

BLOCK: The Republican Party has promised to go all out to pink-slip Tom Perriello. Their primary tomorrow will shape the course of the campaign.

And I'll be going back to Virginia's 5th Congressional District between now and November to see how that struggle is playing out.

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