Reporting from Rio Rico, Ariz. — The contrast between the two candidates couldn't have been starker. On one side of the stage slouched Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, 62, a four-term congressman and local Democratic icon, sporting a bushy moustache and wearing an open-collared shirt that he had changed into an hour earlier but already looked rumpled.
On the other end sat Republican nominee Ruth McClung, 28, her yellow jacket matching her sensibly styled blond hair, carefully smiling at the crowd gathered here this week at a candidate forum about 15 miles from the Mexico border.
Grijalva has represented southern Arizona for decades and his daughter sits on the Tucson School Board, as he did in the 1970s. McClung's only other experience running for office was her campaign to become captain of her high school swim team.
Yet, in a district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 margin, the novice candidate is neck-and-neck with Grijalva in the polls.
Democrats are facing tough races in what they once thought were safe areas around the country, but Grijalva faces an additional burden. He called for a boycott of his state after Gov. Jan Brewer signed a tough immigration law, known as SB 1070, in April.
"The art of representation is to take risks," Grijalva told the crowd at the candidate's forum. "You have to be an advocate."
Grivalja said the law would promote racial profiling. But his advocacy has made him a target.
The state Republican Party distributed bumper stickers reading "Boycott Grijalva, Not Arizona." McClung rarely misses a chance to ding the incumbent about the boycott. "It's definitely woken up quite a few people that he was not representing them," she said in an interview. "People felt they were kicked when they were down."
At the time, though Grijalva received death threats and the windows on one of his district offices were shot out, most analysts figured he would suffer few political consequences from his stance on SB 1070. He had always won reelection with upwards of 60% of the vote in his majority-Latino district.
Then a series of polls released by the Republican Party this month put Grijalva just one or two points ahead of McClung. Outside money has begun to pour into the district. Conservative groups in Washington, D.C. funded $250,000 in ads and the reelection campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) paid for another spot. Democratic groups have also begun to fund ads against McClung, spending nearly $400,000.
The Cook Political Report, which tracks races nationwide, this week changed the race from likely Democratic to toss up
After a federal judge in July halted implementation of most of SB 1070, Grijalva called off the boycott. He has acknowledged it was a "strategic" mistake because it did not change the minds of the law's supporters, but he does not apologize for his anger after the bill was signed.
"I reacted to it very personally," Grijalva said in an interview. "Being a first-generation American, having had to deal with the consequences of being an immigrant family …. to all of a sudden have a law that separates me from the whole, I found very offensive and demeaning."
Though Grijalva raised $500,000 for his reelection effort, he did not launch campaign ads until this month. Observers say the strength of the challenge may have caught him by surprise.
"He hasn't been challenged seriously in the past," said Barbara Norrander, a political science professor at the University of Arizona. "A lot of politicians do what they did in the past."
Grijalva contends that he's in trouble because national Republicans are salivating at the prospect of ousting one of the most outspoken liberals in Congress. He says that McClung's positions are out of step with most voters in the liberal district.
A "tea party" favorite, McClung opposes abortion rights. She supports school vouchers, extending the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans as well as the middle class, cutting corporate taxes and allowing the investment of social security funds in private accounts.
McClung, who has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Arizona and works at a defense company -- her campaign signs read "maybe it does take a rocket scientist" -- is also skeptical that human activity is causing global warming.
But in conversations around the district, voters are more angry at Grijalva than interested in the positions of his opponent.
"I won't vote for him," said Veronica Silvas, 44, a respiratory therapist in Tucson and a Democrat who had long supported him. "Why would you want to boycott your own state?"
Dave Paden, a contractor in Tucson, sees the congressman as part of the problem in Washington, though he couldn't identify precisely what Grijalva had done to frustrate him. "It seemed like in the beginning he was doing the right things, but like a lot of politicians eventually he got kind of stagnant."
Even Grijalva's supporters rued the call for a boycott. "It was a mistake," said Arturo Gamas, 45, who co-owns a Tucson carniceria, or meat market.
"He spoke without thinking," Gamas said in Spanish. "But everyone makes mistakes. He is still good, very humble and sincere."
Jim Lockwood, a 77-year-old retired social worker who came to the Rio Rico forum, said he wished Grijalva hadn't called for the boycott. But citing the congressman's support of the environment and "social justice and some realistic limitation of corporations," he said, "I love Grijalva."