WASHINGTON - With Republican presidential nominee John McCain denouncing the Bush administration and the president nowhere to be found in close Senate and House races, Rep. Peter King nonetheless is standing firmly behind President George W. Bush.
It's not a surprising position for the outspoken King, a self-described "blue-collar Republican" who represents Long Island's sole remaining GOP-controlled district. King, 64, faces Democrat Graham Long, 25, of Glen Cove, who is making his first run for elected office.
King, a Seaford Republican who is a fixture on cable news shows, prides himself on loyalty and having a penchant for provocation. He's still loyal to Bush in part, he says, because of the president's response to 9/11. The attacks killed dozens of people in King's district.
"I know his poll numbers are not very good in my district but history will be kind to President Bush, much as it has been to Harry Truman," King said. "Look, we have not been attacked in seven years and it's not because of luck."
Long, 25, is a former intern with the president's National Economic Council, who works as an economic development adviser to Nassau County. His bare-bones campaign is predicated on a landslide victory for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
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Long said he hopes to ride what he expects to be a Democratic wave, and has adopted the hope-and-change message that underpins Obama's message.
"What exactly has been our experience with the current politicians in Washington? This good-old-boy, special interest-driven, cash-inundated system is getting us nowhere fast," Long said. "I'm running for Congress so that we can change that system."
It will be a tough haul against King, who has enormous financial advantages and a high profile on issues ranging from homeland security to immigration. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report classifies the seat as safely Republican.
King, whose father was a New York City police officer, has developed a close working relationship with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whom he has known since childhood.
King served as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee until the Democrats wrested control of the House in 2006 and has worked closely with Mayor Michael Bloomberg on steering anti-terrorism funding to the city.
He's maintained an even closer relationship with Rudy Giuliani, whom he met nearly 40 years ago when both were summer associates in a Manhattan law firm.
"Pete was always very much like he is right now - a lot of fun, very opinionated, very conservative, very outspoken and would tell you exactly what he thought," Giuliani said.
That penchant for speaking his mind - whether flaying liberals on Fox News or going after immigrant-rights advocates on Lou Dobbs's CNN show - hasn't cost King politically, despite declining GOP fortunes in New York State and on Long Island.
He's probably the Island's most recognizable congressman, and easily the most controversial.
Born in Manhattan, in 1944, King tracked a swift rise through Nassau GOP politics. [CORRECTION: A story Sunday about Rep. Peter King's congressional race incorrectly stated he worked for the Nassau County district attorney's office. King worked for the Nassau County attorney. Pg. A13 ALL 10/28/08] He was a prosecutor in the county district attorney's office, sat on the Hempstead Town board and served as Nassau comptroller.
Elected to Congress in 1992, King quickly earned a reputation as someone who would buck his own party and did not hew to political correctness.
He lambasted House Speaker Newt Gingrich for bringing impeachment charges against Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, once referring to the Georgia Republican as "roadkill." And he opposed the Bush-backed Dubai Ports World deal.
When a constituent wrote him an anti-Bush letter, King, an avid writer who has published several mystery novels, responded, "You are morally, intellectually and politically wrong. Very Truly Yours, Pete T. King"
King has also made enemies among Muslims. In 2004, he declared that 85 percent of American mosques have "extremist leadership." Last year, he asserted that several Long Island mosques were being monitored by law enforcement. He declined to say which or disclose his evidence.
Hafiz Rehman, a Bay Shore doctor who leads the Council of Mosques of Long Island, said King should meet with local Muslims. Rehman said he's been upset with King's past derogatory statements, but said he's glad King hasn't made similar remarks this election cycle.
"We are glad that he didn't make any Islamaphobic statements," Rehman said. "Since I did not hear anything bad from him, I may vote for him."
King has made his biggest national splash on the issue of illegal immigration. He's a fiery proponent of restricting illegal immigration and requiring newcomers to learn English, and he supported construction of a fence along the Mexican border.
No free pass for McCain
Even McCain is fair game on that and other issues. Last year, King opposed McCain's effort to provide 12 million undocumented aliens with a path to citizenship. King also opposes McCain's war on congressional earmarks and the Arizona senator's push to ban coercive interrogation of suspected terrorists.
But King himself suggests he's probably more vulnerable on the Iraq war, which he has supported since 2002.
"There have been protests at my office," King said. "I've had people shout at me. I remember this car pulling up next to me and the guy yelling 'Hey King! How many kids have you killed today?' It's the most intense issue I've ever dealt with."
Democrats thought they had a good chance of beating King in 2006, a watershed election when the party capitalized on Bush's unpopularity to win majorities in the House and Senate.
King faced Nassau County Legis. David Mejias (D-Farmingdale), who raised nearly $1 million and tried to tie the congressman to "the culture of corruption" in Washington epitomized by indicted former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). King called the charges "desperate."
King won a 56-to-44 percent victory - his tightest race since 1996. Mejias declined to run this year, paving the way for Long.
Long is running a conventional Democratic campaign. He's for ending the Iraq war, exploiting new energy sources and nationalizing health care. However, in recent weeks, Long has sought to make political hay of King's vote for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, even though it was backed by Democratic congressional leaders. King defends his vote as necessary for the financial health of New York and his district.
Bailout 'a huge gamble'
"The bailout is a huge gamble with taxpayer dollars," Long said. "The bailout doesn't help the viability long term for Wall Street any more than it helps anyone who's not in the financial sector."
Long said his lack of political experience - because he just turned 25 in May, this is the first time he is constitutionally eligible for federal office - will benefit his campaign.
"People are looking to bring in elected officials who aren't part of the Washington establishment or the regular political scene," he said. "Not running for office before is actually a positive this year."
The rapid deterioration of the economy, which is hurting McCain and GOP incumbents around the country, could work in Long's favor.
Moreover, King has become a target for the leadership of the national Democratic Party, which views his district as key to their efforts to purge the Northeast of its remaining GOP members.
The Democrats have made major inroads: As recently as 1995, three Long Island representatives were Republicans. King, who represents eastern Nassau, is the sole survivor.
Democrats now outnumber Republicans in Nassau and are gaining in Suffolk. But in King's district, there are still far more Republicans - 191,152, compared with 135,756 Democrats.
In part because of this, King has proved a difficult foe for Democrats. He is a cannier politician than many fallen Republicans and he's cultivated close relationships with many powerful Democrats, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, who remain grateful for King's support during impeachment. Plus his district has changed less than most others in the region.
King conceded that he's had to adapt to new realities - particularly the fact voters in his district have become more independent and less likely to vote party line for the GOP as they did during much of the last four decades.
But the biggest adjustment for King, by far, is being the GOP's lone ranger on Long Island.
"This sounds self-serving, but for better or for worse, people know where I stand," he said. "A lot of Republicans, people don't know where they stand on issues. They are just, you know, Republicans." THE DISTRICT
The 3rd Congressional District covers most of eastern Nassau County, stretching into Islip Town in Suffolk. Republicans lead Democrats in voter registration 191,152 to 135,756, with another 106,282 registrants not aligned with any political party, according to New York State enrollment figures. Rep. King voting record SCORECARD Family Research Council: 93% (2007)
American Conservative Union: 76%
Conservative activist group
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: 74%
Represents major labor unions
League of Conservation Voters: 19%
Americans for Democratic Action: 15%
Liberal activist group
*Scores represent the percentage of votes in Congress in favor of a group's agenda. There is no score for opponent Graham Long because he has not served in Congress. REPUBLICAN
EDUCATION: Brooklyn Preparatory School; St. Francis College, bachelor's degree, 1965; University of Notre Dame, law degree, 1968.
RELIGION: Roman Catholic
FAMILY: Married, wife Rosemary, two children
CAREER: Prosecutor, Nassau County district attorney's office, 1968-1974; Hempstead Town Board, 1978-1981; Nassau County comptroller, 1982-1992; U.S. Congress, 1993-present
Raised: $1.4 million
Cash on hand: $926,027
As of Aug. 20, 2008
Source: Federal Election Commission
HOME: Glen Cove
EDUCATION: Locust Valley High School; George Washington University, bachelor's degree, 2005.
RELIGION: Nonpracticing Roman Catholic
CAREER: White House intern, 2002-2003; economic development adviser and regional planning specialist, Nassau County, 2006-2008
Create 5 million "green collar jobs" to build energy independence
End Washington's "borrow-and-spend addiction"
Extend Medicare access to all Americans
Cash on hand: $15,485
As of Aug. 20, 2008
Source: Federal Election Commission