As the only Arkansas congressman seeking re-election, U.S. Rep. Mike Ross should have plenty of reason to fret about his future. He's an incumbent in a political climate hostile to those in power. He's also a Democrat in a place where the party's leader, President Barack Obama, is especially unpopular.
But Ross is one of the few Democratic candidates his party isn't worried about as it tries to prevent a GOP congressional sweep Tuesday in what has been a blue-leaning state.
One doesn't have to look any further than his television ads to discover his secret. He's not only distancing himself from Obama and Nancy Pelosi, the party's liberal House speaker. Many anxious Democrats are doing that. But he's also making clear he's no Blanche Lincoln, his fellow Arkansas Democrat fighting an uphill battle to win re-election to the Senate.
Even in a midterm election that has turned into a festival of party self-loathing by Democrats in conservative states, Ross' determination to be a party of one stands out.
"He stood up to Pelosi and Washington insiders and voted against their health care overhaul," says the announcer in one of Ross' ads. Voting for that legislation is considered one of the reasons Lincoln is trailing her Republican opponent, John Boozman.
Then, Ross brags that he never moved his family from their home in Prescott, a subtle reference to criticism Lincoln has received for relocating to suburban Washington, seen as evidence she had lost her roots.
"Mike never moved to Washington," the announcer says in Ross' ad.
Ross never mentions or refers to Lincoln in the ad, which describes him as the "one leader around here who really listens," and he says he intended no slight.
However, Ross said in an interview, "There's a lot of anger out there, and I just want to make sure that people understand to direct that anger at the right people, and not me. I share their concerns."
Ross' every-man-for-himself posture underscores the bleakness of Democrats' prospects in Arkansas as Election Day approaches. Lincoln is trailing Boozman in most polls, and Republicans are well-positioned to pick up two congressional seats currently held by Democrats in the state.
Ross, who got his start in politics as Bill Clinton's driver during his 1982 gubernatorial campaign, has spent nearly a decade representing a forested and industrial swath of southern Arkansas. He is a member of the fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" coalition of Democrats, and hopes his rejection of the Democratic Party's national agenda will protect him in a Republican year.
He has split with his party on the Bush-era tax cuts and calls for a full extension of them. He's also opposed the Obama administration's lawsuit challenging a strict illegal immigration law in Arizona.
His Republican challenger, Beth Anne Rankin, a former Miss Arkansas who worked in former Gov. Mike Huckabee's office as a liaison, is trying hard to undercut that image.
A supporter's hand-painted sign near the highway leading into Fordyce reads: "Beth Anne Rankin or Nancy Pelosi: Your Choice." Though Ross is widely viewed as a favorite for another term, Rankin says her own polling shows her trailing by only a few percentage points.
There are a few Democratic positions Ross embraces _ ones that resonate with the state's large population of senior citizens and working-class people. Those include past support for increasing the minimum wage and opposition to privatizing Social Security.
The political straddle is what it may take for Ross to keep his district in Democrat hands.
"If Democrats are going to hold it, it's going to be with a Democrat who is certainly more conservative," said Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University. "You're going to have to get some people who are presidential Republicans to support you."
Dennis Bailey is one of those presidential Republicans that Ross will have to keep. Bailey, 58, has supported Ross in the past but voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 election and says he is having a harder time separating Ross from national Democrats.
"If people don't like the leader, they're not going to like his generals," Bailey said. "I'm just keeping an open mind."