GAINESVILLE, GA. — Republican Jim Whitehead would seem a good fit for Georgia's right-leaning 10th District, which votes Tuesday to fill the country's first congressional opening since the Democratic victories in November.
Whitehead, 65, is a former University of Georgia football lineman with a deep Southern baritone; an easy, avuncular way with voters; and a penchant for tough conservative talk. He has accused "left-wing political activists" of registering Al Qaeda members to vote, and he favors sealing off not just the border with Mexico, but also the one with Canada.
But the run-up to the vote here hasn't been the cakewalk for Whitehead that many expected, with his nine rivals in the nonpartisan special election assailing his positions on the two most volatile issues of the day: illegal immigration and the Iraq war.
The criticism Whitehead is receiving on those topics -- on Iraq from the leading Democratic candidate and on immigration from fellow Republicans -- demonstrate the squeeze many GOP politicians find themselves in. As voters in both parties grow increasingly war-weary, Republicans are divided over the merits of the immigration legislation in the U.S. Senate.
Whitehead, a former state senator, is still widely considered the front-runner. But he concedes that the issues have added a new complexity to political debate even in this stretch of Southern heartland, which runs from Augusta to the North Carolina state line.
The special election was called to fill the seat vacated by six-term Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood, who died of cancer in February.
On the ballot are Whitehead, five other Republicans, three Democrats and a Libertarian.
Under Georgia law, the top vote-getter in the nonpartisan race will go straight to Washington if the candidate receives more than half the votes. If not, the top two will meet in a July 17 runoff.
Whitehead's opponents concede that he has the edge: He has raised $577,000, about five times the amount of the other leading candidates.
But his critics say he has made a number of blunders. Chief among them, they say, was his comment to an Atlanta reporter that Iraq "has not been a big thing" in the 10th District.
His opponents have lambasted Whitehead for skipping three candidates forums since June 6. His absence hasn't stopped them from attacking him on the issues.
On Iraq, Whitehead opposes congressional Democrats' call for phased withdrawal, and he says he fears the consequences of leaving Iraq in chaos -- though he concedes that "mistakes were made" in the war. The latter is a position shared by a majority of likely Georgia voters: In a poll in April, Atlanta-based public affairs company Strategic Vision found that 52% disapproved of President Bush's handling of the war.
That is the contingent Democrat James Marlow is working hardest to court. In contrast with Whitehead, he said he supported the plan for troop withdrawals laid out in the Iraq Study Group report.
On the stump, Marlow has also repeatedly bashed Whitehead for his comments downplaying the war. (Whitehead has since said those remarks were misinterpreted.)
"Just what does Jim Whitehead think is a big deal?" Marlow asked the audience in a candidates' forum Tuesday in Atlanta. "Obviously not Iraq ... obviously not you!"
On immigration, Whitehead said he opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants and viewed the Senate immigration bill as an amnesty bill. He said he preferred strengthening border security and enforcing laws already on the books, which he says will either discourage illegal immigrants from staying or lead to their deportation.
But that hasn't insulated him from attacks from two Republican opponents, Paul Broun and Bill Greene.
Greene's positions are not much different from Whitehead's, but he argues that the front-runner has been inconsistent on the issue.
On his website, Greene, who says he has patrolled the border as a member of the Minuteman Project, calls illegal immigrants "a detriment to the American economy." Their "refusal to assimilate," he says "is an affront to American culture."
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that Georgia has more than 200,000 illegal immigrants; others believe the number is much higher. Greene says his message is resonating with voters here.
"I'm hearing anger, frustration, confusion from Republicans -- about their own party!" he said. "The anger is not just simmering on the surface anymore. It's mostly about illegal immigration."
Greene supporter James Campbell, 59, a pilot, lives in Watkinsville, Ga., near Athens, which has seen a large Latino influx in recent years. Immigration, Campbell said, was a "huge" issue for him.
Campbell said he didn't trust anyone to resist the business interests pressing for a compromise on immigration in Washington. But if anyone could, Campbell said, it would be someone with Minuteman bona fides, like Greene.
"I think the potential's there," he said.