Reporting from St. Croix Falls, Wis. — Sean Duffy, a Republican candidate with a telegenic smile and a hey-dude demeanor, stood in the county GOP headquarters, holding the hope of every gray-haired conservative in front of him.
He talked of fiscal conservatism and the movement afoot across the country. In just a few days, he said, voters here would "turn the page" in a district that sent the same Democrat, David R. Obey, to Congress for more than 40 years.
Defying the stereotype of the GOP "tea party" candidate, Duffy, 39, was neither angry nor strident.
With the earnestness of a civics teacher, he said he hoped to be a part of "a new fresh class" of Republicans that will join the "great discussion and debate" in Congress.
As he stepped to the side, he revealed why some are less optimistic that the debate would have a positive tone after Tuesday.
A newspaper ad hanging on a post warned of President Obama and read "WAKE UP AMERICA!!!!!!" Nearby was a photograph of Joe Biden edited to give the vice president cornrows.
As candidates like Duffy arrive on the cusp of history on Tuesday, many have moved well beyond their early base of support, in the most conservative and confrontational corners of Republican politics. Still, like Duffy, they may find it difficult to leave behind the raw-nerve politics that forged their early candidacies.
Regardless of their exact numbers, the new class of GOP House members is expected to herald a power shift in Washington and a rebound for a party left battered by losses in 2006 and 2008. Like Duffy, many in that class will be indebted to the tea party movement and its attention-getting activism. Their mandate will be to stop government growth, deficit spending and implementation of the healthcare law.
But while this class may credit its early energy to the tea party, many of its members will owe their victories to another type of voter: moderate independents who are shifting away from Democrats.
These voters are hardly more trusting of Republicans than Democrats. They are worried most about the economy, and seem to crave new faces.
Duffy is undeniably fresh. He is a dynamic public speaker and has some of the most memorable descriptors in American politics: lumberjack, log roller, former MTV "Real World: Boston" cast member and former district attorney. Recent polls show Duffy leading Democratic candidate Julie Lassa in a tight race.
Duffy praises Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for his anti-earmark stance. And he regularly praises Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) for his deficit-reduction plan.
In contrast, Duffy seems to put distance between himself and other party leaders. Asked what he thinks of the House Republicans' "Pledge to America," he declares: "To be honest, I haven't read it."
In his closing days, Duffy's message seems well attuned to independent voters. He gets most animated in calling for lower taxes and assailing the administration's failure to reverse the economic downturn. He says he's open to "reforming the reform" rather than repeal of the healthcare law.
Duffy's softer stand on healthcare helped earn him the surprise endorsement of the Wausau Daily Herald. But it didn't seem to get much of a reaction from the crowd in Polk County.
Asked what he wants to see from the Duffy if he makes it to Congress, Bob Baker, a tea party activist, put a vote on repeal at the top of the list. If Duffy doesn't vote yes, Baker said, "He'll have some explaining to do at our Reagan Day dinner."