WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - When Allen West showed up recently to inaugurate a Republican campaign office in West Palm Beach, a local party official enthusiastically introduced the Florida congressman as “Public Enemy No. 1.”
That prompted cheers from supporters of the firebrand Republican, whose provocative partisan rhetoric has made him a hero among conservatives but also a top Democratic target in this year’s congressional races.
West faces a tough re-election challenge in one of the country’s most closely watched races. His blistering attacks on the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama have proved to be a powerful campaign fundraising tool for West -- and a rallying cry for Democrats.
West’s Democratic opponent is hammering him for his unwillingness to compromise, saying the intransigence of West and other first-term Republicans has led to gridlock in Washington.
“I speak the truth, and I think that’s what a lot of people are upset about,” West said in a recent interview.
A Tea Party darling, West has amassed one of the largest campaign war chests among House Republicans. Only House Speaker John Boehner and former Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachman have raised more money.
So far in this election cycle he has collected more than $15 million -- an extraordinary sum for a congressman with little seniority -- boosted by substantial direct-mail and Internet appeals to grassroots Republican supporters. In the third quarter alone, he raised $4 million, according to his campaign.
West’s appeal to conservative donors has been so potent that his campaign recently asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate some third-party political action committees that have been using his name and pictures in fundraising appeals without giving the money to his campaign.
The 51-year-old former Army officer, one of two African-American Republicans in the House, is running in a newly redrawn congressional district that includes portions of Palm Beach County. His opponent, 29-year-old businessman and political newcomer Patrick Murphy, has strong backing from party headquarters and is one of the best-funded Democratic challengers in the country. A campaign spokeswoman, Erin Moffet, said he has raised $3.3 million in this election cycle, including $1 million in the third quarter.
The battle in Florida’s new 18th district will test whether a high-profile -- some say polarizing -- conservative can win one of the biggest swing districts in a perennial swing state.
Each candidate has claimed the lead in what has been an acrimonious race filled with negative TV ads. In late September, West’s campaign released a poll that put him ahead 52 percent to 41 percent. Then, in early October, Murphy’s campaign put out its own poll showing its candidate up 52 percent to 43 percent.
West’s biting critiques of his colleagues across the aisle began making headlines -- and made him a national figure -- shortly after he won office two years ago.
Earlier this year he said as many as 81 House Democrats were members of the Communist Party. That drew swift criticism from Democrats, but West stood by his comments. He once described Obama as a “low-level socialist agitator.” In a blog, West wrote, “I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.”
At a Republican fundraiser in Palm Beach in January, he urged Democrats to “take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency and take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people, somewhere else.”
He added: “You can take it to Europe, you can take it to the bottom of the sea, you can take it to the North Pole, but get the hell out of the United States of America!”
To his supporters, West is a straight shooter with unbending conservative beliefs.
“He tells it like it is,” said Mary Ruth Williamson, a school nurse who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “He’s patriotic and honest. With him, there is none of this misleading stuff.”
West, who was born and raised in inner-city Atlanta, spent 22 years in the Army and served as a battalion commander in the Iraq war. In 2003 he was relieved of his command and fined $5,000 after firing a gun near the head of an Iraqi man during an interrogation.
A year later he retired with full benefits and moved to Florida, working first as a high school teacher and then as a civilian adviser to the Afghan army. He lost a bid for Congress in 2008.
In 2010, West won office in a largely Republican district that was later redistricted to include a majority of Democrats. So he shifted districts to one with slightly more Republicans. (Under Florida law, a candidate for Congress must be a state resident but does not have to live in his district.)
The 18th district is 38 percent Republican and 37 percent Democratic, with 25 percent of voters describing themselves as independents, according to data from the Florida House of Representatives.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the race will hinge in part on how independents view West’s rhetoric.
“Republicans by and large think West is fantastic, and Democrats can’t stand him,” he said. “Saying outrageous things really fires up the conservative and Tea Party base, and it’s fantastic for fundraising, but there is a real risk you turn off independent and swing voters.”
Jewett said the outcome of the presidential race in Florida will likely affect West’s prospects. Most polls show Romney holding a slight lead in Florida.
Murphy, a certified public accountant whose father runs a construction company in Miami, is trying to make the race a referendum on West, calling the Republican an extremist member of a “do-nothing” Congress.
“I do want to make sure people know who the real Allen West is,” he told Reuters before a recent campaign appearance.
Murphy said West’s extremist rhetoric makes him ineffective as a legislator.
“How in the world are you going to call someone a communist and then expect to negotiate with them?”
A onetime Republican, Murphy said he became disillusioned with the GOP after the Iraq war began, though he didn’t officially switch parties until 2011. He announced he would challenge West before the congressman switched districts, then also relocated to the 18th district.
Former President Bill Clinton recently headlined a fundraiser for Murphy. And the House Majority PAC, a group that supports House Democratic candidates, said in September that it plans to spend some $1.5 million on TV ads attacking West.
‘I‘M NOT VOTING FOR HIM’
Two moderate Republicans in the district said they planned to back Murphy even though they were just getting to know him.
T.A. Wyner, a 64-year-old farmer’s market producer, said she is a lifelong Republican, originally from Pittsburgh, who for years has lived in Fort Pierce, Florida.
“I don’t know Patrick, but I know who West is and I‘m not voting for him,” she said.
Her husband, Barry Levine, also said he plans to vote for Murphy. He said West represents a face of the Republican Party that he cannot relate to.
“I don’t recognize the party anymore,” he said. “I can’t get behind the ideas and the divisiveness.”
Asked whether the highly charged political atmosphere in Washington makes it difficult to accomplish anything, West said the political battles go beyond the issues of the day.
“It’s not about politics, it’s about principle,” he said.
West has sought to capitalize on his unpopularity among Democrats.
One tweet his campaign sent out soliciting funds described him as “the #1 target of Reid, Pelosi and Obama,” referring to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the president.
“Help fight back against liberal attacks dollar-for-dollar,” it said.
“I‘m not fighting against him,” West said of Murphy. “I‘m fighting against the entire Democratic Party.”
Editing by Lee Aitken and Douglas Royalty