The black Jesse Helms

It's just over two weeks until the midterm elections, and Vernon Robinson, a black Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, is stumping in Burlington, North Carolina, amid-sized outlet-mall city once known as the "Hosiery Center of the South." Attending services at First Baptist Church on Apple Street,Robinson sits a few pews from the front, surrounded by the rowdy,hollering congregation but visibly alone. Occasionally Robinson, a burly man who seems on the verge of bursting out of his pinstripe suit, tries out a few hip-shakes or lifts his hand in an amen gesture; for the most part, he sits awkwardly still--especially during the fiery sermon, in which First Baptist's pastor urges his all-black flock to ponder the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims.

Wince. The disastrous federal response to Katrina is one of many uncomfortable subjects for GOP candidates this year. And, if it's a bad time for the party in general, it's worse still for challengers like Robinson, who is hoping to unseat a Democratic incumbent,Representative Brad Miller, in North Carolina's 13th District. Even when Karl Rove expresses optimism about November 7, he's merely suggesting that Republicans may hemorrhage fewer seats than anticipated; no one is talking about them picking up new ones. In the House, the National Republican Congressional Committee has shifted its focus almost exclusively to retaining incumbents and,as of last week, is funneling money to just four challengers, no tone of whom is currently favored to win. Of those, three are blessed with anomalously felicitous circumstances, such as a newly gerrymandered district (Mac Collins in Georgia's 8th), a green freshman as an opponent (David McSweeney in Illinois's 8th), or an opportunity to retake an old seat (former Representative Max Burnsin Georgia's 12th, who lost narrowly in 2004).

Robinson, by contrast, appears to have all the cards stacked against him. He doesn't have the party's help, and, when Miller was chair of the redistricting committee in the state Senate, he drew the13th Democratic, so it would be tough for even a moderate Republican to win. And Robinson is no moderate. He's an Alan Keyes wannabe, a rhetorical bomb-thrower who has lost ten previous races.He routinely invokes Sodom and Gomorrah on the campaign trail and has made anti-immigrant rants a cornerstone of his bid for office.Greeting parishioners outside First Baptist after the service ends,Robinson assures one woman that, if he's elected, illegal immigrants will know to "take the maps the Mexican government gave 'em, turn 'em around, and find their way home."

Yet, paradoxically, even in the midst of this dismal season for the GOP, Robinson has an outside shot at victory. He has out-raised his opponent, and, last week, CQPolitics.com upgraded the race's competitiveness. Moreover, Robinson has stayed in the game by taking the opposite tack from most of his party-mates: As other endangered Republicans backpedal furiously toward moderate, even apologetic, positions, Vernon Robinson has offered voters an invigorating invocation of the conservative id.

Robinson grew up in Los Angeles in a liberal family and volunteered for Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign when he was just twelve years old. But, after graduating from the Air Force Academy in1977, he started moving toward a macho, Reagan-style conservatism.Interning for Missouri Democratic State Representative Alan Wheatin 1982, he watched representatives decide to kill the state's Equal Rights Amendment over drinks and thought, "Wow!" When he was offered a job on Wheat's campaign for U.S. Congress, he declined, in part because another mentor had advised him that, for him, the GOP would be a "great opportunity."

Having pinned his star to the Republican Party, he moved to North Carolina to teach in a business school and became known for two things: strong advocacy for school choice and a strong desire to hold public office. After running eight losing races for various statewide offices, in 1997 Robinson finally broke through.Campaigning for a seat on the Winston-Salem city council, he sent out a mailer accusing a primary opponent of being a nudist: "Your vote could determine whether VERNON  ROBINSON or my opponent-- an admitted NUDEST-- yep--like nekkid--like no clothes--represents the Republican Party in the November 4 election," it read. Robinson won the primary and the seat.

Once on the council, he developed this style of political theater into his signature: When his name came up during roll calls, he didn't say, "Here"; he yelled, "Overtaxed!" The form reached its apotheosis in 2004, when, on Martin Luther King Day, he spent

$2,000 of his own money to unilaterally install a Ten Commandments monument in front of the Winston-Salem City Hall; city officials were later forced to remove it with a backhoe.

At the time, Robinson was already running for an open seat in the U.S. House, and the monument incident put him on the national map.He picked up endorsements from prominent Republicans like Bob Barrand Jack Kemp, and his campaign was featured on Fox News. But when people took a closer look at Robinson--who had taken to calling himself the "black Jesse Helms" and running outlandish TV ads depicting Hispanics burning the American flag--they were less impressed. Kemp retracted his endorsement, and even the real Jesse Helms threw his support to somebody else. "The problem is with Vernon personally," a local Republican official complained. "He is a scorched-earth political figure." After barely edging out his competitors in the primary, Robinson was handily defeated in an August runoff.

But Robinson has returned, unabashed, from his high-profile defeat.His infamous ads are back, too--like a short-lived TV spot alleging that Miller "pays for sex" (translation: he voted to maintain funding for four National Institutes of Health sexuality-related medical studies) and a "Beverly Hillbillies"-inspired radio jingle that warbles, "Come and hear me tell about a politician named Brad./ He gave illegal aliens everything we had!" But Robinson has added a new element to his flamboyant shtick, cleverly attuned to the peculiar contours of this cycle: Stylistically, he presents himself just like one of this year's successful Democratic challengers,appropriating their anti-incumbent, anti-Congress, anti-Bush rhetoric for himself. He rarely mentions his party affiliation, and he always makes sure to refer to his opponent as "Congressman Miller," to implicate him in the sins of the institution. At a candidates' forum in Raleigh that he hustles to after his First Baptist visit, he manages to make Miller, dapper in a striped tie and fashionable thick-framed glasses, look like the candidate of the beleaguered status quo and himself the angry reformer. After Miller wearily explains, "I'm not happy with Congress or the president," Robinson loudly counters, "I've differed from the president on a wide range of issues. If you elect me, I won't be a potted plant!"

As I follow Robinson on the campaign trail, it becomes apparent that the strange dynamic of this year's elections has transformed his old weaknesses into strengths. Once an embarrassment, his outspokenness is now a breath of fresh air that gives hope--and motivation--to downcast Republicans. Money is flowing in from allover the country. And his admirers uniformly love his over- the-to pads: They ask him to talk about his plan to put thousands of Marine son the Southern border and to combat "Brad [Miller]'s plan to recruit thousands of foreign homosexuals to come to this country."In this year's battle, Robinson is playing the Republican Party's Stonewall Jackson, defiantly leading a screaming bayonet charge even as the ranks retreat around him.

Though he might have been a headache for the local party apparatus in 2004, at this year's North Carolina State Fair the Republican booth's organizers tell me Robinson is one of their most popular candidates. "When people expect so little of you, you want to blow them away," explains Brittany Farrell, head of North Carolina State's College Republicans. In the end, Robinson's bid is likely quixotic: North Carolina's 13th is becoming more Republican, but its till narrowly tilts Democratic. But Robinson's not letting that dampen his enthusiasm.

The fair is Robinson's last stop for the day, and--it being rainy and late-- the crowds have mostly dissipated, leaving only a thin layer of peanut shells in their wake. Even so, he entertains a steady stream of supporters, and a policeman guarding the fair's entrance tells Robinson that he's going to vote for him. Robinson is feeling so good that he wanders over to the Democratic booth and asks its startled attendant for her vote. "Maybe," she says. Like his campaign, it's an absurd pitch. Maybe it'll work.