ASHEBORO N.C. (Reuters) - “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken is back on tour. This time he is trying to win over North Carolina voters with his political chops rather than his voice, and he has less than two weeks left to do it.
Polls and pundits suggest Aiken, a Democrat running in a solidly Republican congressional district, could be headed for another second-place finish.
Undeterred, he is spending the final stretch of the campaign traveling and living on a bus emblazoned with a “Clay for North Carolina” slogan to tell voters in his native state why he would be an effective advocate for them in Congress.
“I can get people to pay attention,” Aiken, 35, said at a town hall campaign event in Asheboro last week. “It’s a benefit of where I came from and how I got here.”
About 30 people showed up at an historic courthouse in central North Carolina to hear Aiken speak at the event, a far different scene than his heady “American Idol” days in 2003 when 38 million TV viewers watched him perform in the show’s finale.
The singing contest launched the gangly, red-headed special education teacher to an entertainment career that has included stints on Broadway in “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and on television in “The Celebrity Apprentice.” He made the cover of People magazine when he announced in 2008 that he was gay.
His first run for office has also drawn wide attention. He eked out a win in the Democratic primary for the chance to challenge Republican U.S. Representative Renee Ellmers on Nov. 4 and has snapped countless selfies with fans on the campaign trail.
Just don’t ask him to sing.
“As soon as I get up there and start singing, they remember me as the guy who sings,” he said in an interview. “They don’t remember anything else about it at all, so I’m trying not to do that.”
Aiken argues his opponent spends too much time in Washington and puts partisan politics ahead of the needs of North Carolina’s sprawling 2nd congressional district, which stretches across nine counties and includes the Fort Bragg military base.
Ellmers, 50, is a former nurse who first won the seat during the Republicans’ national electoral sweep in 2010 and clinched her second term with 56 percent of the vote in 2012.
She dismissed Aiken’s attacks on her record during a televised debate this month, suggesting he did not understand how Washington works. He seems to think he will be able to sway leaders with “a song and dance,” she said.
“Congresswoman Ellmers is good at her talking points, good at calling me an entertainer,” Aiken said in response. “But the most embarrassing reality show right now in the country is Congress.”
A poll conducted by the conservative Civitas Institute in late September showed Ellmers drawing 47 percent support compared to Aiken’s 39 percent. Fourteen percent were undecided, and there was a 5 percent margin of error.
The congresswoman also leads in fundraising and cash on hand, though Aiken’s campaign claims it has the momentum in the race after raising more than Ellmers in the past two quarters.
Aiken recently unveiled campaign signs featuring the slogan “Republaiken,” which critics saw as an attempt to confuse voters. Political experts say North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature re-drew the 2nd district to favor their party.
Aiken’s campaign manager said the signs signaled his intent to represent all voters, regardless of their party affiliation.
Janet Pate, the treasurer of a local Tea Party group, left Aiken’s event in Asheboro carrying a stack of the signs and said she planned to put one up in her yard.
She was among several Tea Party members at the town hall who said they were disillusioned by Ellmers and were considering giving Aiken their vote.
“She’s done nothing,” said Pate, 47. “He’s open to hearing what we have to say at least.”
Reporting by Colleen Jenkins, editing by Jill Serjeant and Cynthia Osterman