OAKLAND -- Political extremism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One person's right-wing ideologue is another's sensible conservative.
That is the paradox Democratic challenger Steve Crawford faces this fall as he tries to unseat Republican incumbent Roscoe G. Bartlett in Western Maryland's 6th Congressional District.
Pointing to the two-term congressman's conservative voting record, Crawford is trying to portray him as a radical who is out of touch with constituents.
"He has extremist, ideological views," said Crawford, who holds a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University and lectures at the University of Maryland College Park. As evidence, he points to Bartlett's support for repealing a ban on assault weapons and his opposition to increasing the minimum wage.
But in the conservative 6th District, which stretches from affluent suburbs in Howard County to farms and strip mines in the far corner of Western Maryland, many voters think Bartlett's positions make sense.
And Bartlett, a soft-spoken septuagenarian who wears red suspenders and carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the breast pocket of his suit coat, is not an easy man to demonize.
That was apparent one day last week as he traveled from Cumberland to an Oakland meeting with constituents. As they complained about the high cost of health insurance or difficulties in obtaining veterans' benefits, Bartlett listened patiently with his hands clasped in his lap, nodding sympathetically.
At times, the discussions seemed to be taking place in an echo chamber, with politician and voter affirming each other's views. Bartlett concluded each session with a quote from the Old Testament or a brief homily on the perils of big government.
"He's about one of the last conservatives," said an admiring Claudia Valenta, 40, who drove from her farm to a post office in Garrett County to introduce her six children to Bartlett and thank him for his opposition to abortion. "I feel like he represents how we view life."
Early in his first term, Bartlett became the butt of jokes after several gaffes, including one at a public meeting where he wondered aloud why a list of science scholarship winners, who were largely Asian-American, didn't have more "normal names."
Today, the Frederick County farmer, scientist and inventor who holds a master's degree and a doctoral degree from the University of Maryland is viewed as something of an eccentric even within the state GOP. But as he tries for a third term, Bartlett continues to play well where it counts, along the country roads and in the small towns of Western Maryland.
In 1994, he carried his district, which includes Carroll County, most of Howard County -- though only a small section of Columbia -- and all of Western Maryland, by nearly 2-to-1. This year, even Democrats say he will be hard to beat.
"It's tough to get him," said Paul Muldowney, the Democrat Bartlett trounced two years ago. "How do you attack an incumbent who ran on a platform of less government, less taxes, more individual responsibility, votes that way and, the last time he ran, got 65 percent?"
His challenger, Crawford, 53, lives in Frederick and, like Bartlett, is a relative newcomer to politics. Two years ago, with a campaign run by former graduate students from the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs, he finished a respectable third out of seven in a contentious Democratic primary.
This year, with little competition, he won easily.
Crawford, who has a master's degree in business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, describes himself as a "sensible centrist" who would do more to help working people and the elderly. His strategy is to hammer away at Bartlett's record, vote by vote.
In an appeal to retirees, Crawford has attacked Bartlett's vote to slow the growth of Medicare spending by $270 billion over seven years. Crawford suggests reducing costs by paying hospitals for services in advance.
Bartlett argues that scaling back Medicare is necessary to save the program from bankruptcy. He also says that competition for Medicare dollars in the private sector will reduce costs and lead to better service.
Crawford maintains that Bartlett's opposition to increasing the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour shows that he is unconcerned with the plight of the workers. Bartlett responds that raising the minimum wage will force businesses to cut jobs.
"The argument that these people need a living wage is a perfectly silly argument," he said. It "reminds me of the Communist Manifesto. You don't pay people in a job on the basis of what they need; you pay them on the basis of the contribution they make."