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'Confidence' defines Democrat Miller's congressional campaign

Democrat Rob Miller answers questions during an interview at City Java in Beaufort on Wednesday morning.
Democrat Rob Miller answers questions during an interview at City Java in Beaufort on Wednesday morning.

The epiphany rode horseback on exhaustion and pain.

Galloping over Rob Miller early in his 13-year military career, while he completed Camp Lejeune, N.C.'s, grueling close combat instructors course, it imparted an indelible sense of invincibility.

"For me, it was a distinct moment when I learned that there's literally nothing I can't do," said Miller, who lives on Lady's Island. "There were points when everyone wanted to quit, it was so hard. And once you overcome that, and you face it, everything after becomes manageable."

That self-confidence explains in part why Miller, 36, is back for another swing at U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson.

Two years ago, Miller, who had no political experience, made a run at the Lexington County Republican, but Wilson went on to a fifth term in the state's 2nd Congressional District, winning reelection 54-46 percent.

Miller had already announced he would try again for the Democratic nomination in this year's election when Wilson infamously shouted "you lie" during President Barack Obama's address to a joint session of Congress as the president explained his proposal to reform health care.

Almost immediately, campaign donations began pouring in to Miller, and both candidates found themselves thrust into a high-profile contest long before most otherraces across the country were off the ground.

Almost a year later, Miller has raised more than $2.5 million and Wilson more than $4 million, making theirs the richest contest for a U.S. House seat in South Carolina's history.

Miller heads into the final two months of the campaign with more experience, more money, more name recognition and, some supporters say, more confidence than ever.

The chairwoman of the S.C. State Democratic Party warns not to sell Miller short.

"(Miller) ran a competitive race in 2008, but he was clearly new at it," Carol Fowler said. "He's more sure of himself, he's better at fundraising, he's better at one-on-one talking to voters, he makes a better speech."

CAMPAIGN TOO QUIET?

The 2nd Congressional District stretches from Lexington County, a traditional Republican stronghold, to the South Carolina-Georgia border in Jasper County, which is similarly affluent and similarly red. In between, it curves a curious path through Aiken's horse country and hugs the Savannah River through some of the state's poorest and most rural territory.

Wilson seems to traipse the district tirelessly -- in fact, he's made more publicized campaign appearances in Beaufort County -- his opponent's backyard -- than Miller has.

Miller said he has campaigned just as vigorously, but he has opted for a "ground-up" approach that favors meetings with local business, community and church leaders over larger town-hall style gatherings.

Fowler said that "retail politics" style should be effective in a state where voters need to "feel like we know (the candidates.)"

But until recently, Miller seemed almost too quiet to Blaine Lotz, who lost to Miller in the 2008 Democratic primary and now serves as Beaufort County's Democratic Party chairman. (Miller's campaign agreed to provide The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet with a list of their candidate's recent and future events but failed to send the itinerary in time to include in this story.)

"I've told his staff that quite honestly, up until about the last three or four weeks, I did not think he was visible enough in Beaufort County," said Lotz, who added that for Miller to carry Beaufort County -- which he lost by about 10,000 votes in 2008 -- heavy presence is needed.

Lotz credited the campaign with upping Miller's visibility recently and finding creative ways to reach voters, such as having individuals hand out literature and answer questions about the candidate at local high school football games.

Although Miller's campaign director Lindsay Zoeller said the camp doesn't discuss strategy, Lotz and Fowler said they expect a hefty advertising campaign and larger public events as election day draws nearer.

Will it be enough to topple Wilsonfrom a traditional Republican stronghold, in a climate in which public sentiment seems to have turned against Democrats in Congress and the White House?

Miller says yes, pointing to experiences that have shaped his focus throughout his life.

'WHO I AM'

Growing up in Charleston, Miller considered his life pretty normal until his father fell ill and died. Miller was just 14.

"It was a very difficult time... just financially, living and making it happen every day," he said. "My mother is by far one of my greatest heroes in life."

He attended Bishop England High School, where he first met his wife, Shane.

The two were acquaintances and sat near each other in homeroom but didn't begin dating until years later, after reconnecting through friends at the College of Charleston.

"We became best friends pretty quickly," said Shane Miller, 35. "He was very charming and, of course, very attractive, and also extremely smart."

"He is very serious... he absolutely is the hardest working person that I've ever met, but he does have a funny side and a wit about him," she added.

During his freshman year at the College of Charleston, Miller enlisted in the Marine Corps and in January 1995 began basic training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. He went on to get his bachelor's degreefrom the University of South Carolina and a master's degree in justice administration from Norwich University.

He and Shane married in 1997. They have an 8-year-old son, Ranson, who attends Beaufort Elementary School.

Miller spent 13 years in the Marine Corps and among other deployments, served two tours in Iraq. He rose to the rank of captain before leaving in 2008 to run against Wilson.

He and his wife own a small online business called Recruits Depot. The store began as a patriotic military memorabilia hub with a storefront in northern Beaufort County, but the family closed that location in 2008 as many others did grappling with a sinking economy, Miller said. They are now expanding the scope of products they offer on the internet, including first-responder and military tactical gear.

In battle and business, success ultimately depends upon honesty and integrity, Miller said.

"We refer to it in the Marine Corps as honor, courage and commitment," Miller said. "It's who we are; it's who I am."

Miller has talked a lot about his background and South Carolina heritage since entering the race in May 2009, Lotz said.

"At meetings I've participated in, when someone asks him directly about issues, I've been pleased with his responses," Lotz said. "But many people who have talked to me about Miller have said they would like to hear more about where he stands on issues."

THE ISSUES

On some issues, Miller's positions sound like something a tea partier could get behind -- for example, he said his top priority is reining in the federal government's "out-of-control spending habit," starting with a 10-percent pay cut for members of Congress. He says that would save about $100 million.

"We also need to begin the process of a realistic, 3- to 5-percent budget cut on discretionary spending across the board," Miller said.

Yet Miller, unlike Wilson, said he supports stimulus spending given the national recession.

When it comes to health care, Miller said he believes the system with its "out of control rising health care costs" is broken and in need of aggressive reform.

But he has yet to say -- despite being asked directly -- whether he would have voted for the bitterly contested health care reform that Obama signed into law in March.

"Every congressman who was there had the ability to help shape that legislation and had I been there, it would have been a different (bill)," he said earlier this week.

Miller criticized the legislation for giving Medicaid and Medicare the ability to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and for including anti-trust loopholes for health insurance companies.

"We have to be focused on cost control," he said.

On another contentious issue -- an Arizona law that would allow the state's police officials to enforce federal immigration laws -- Miller called the legislation a knee jerk reaction to the federal government's "absolute shirking responsibility" for almost 20 years.

"Everything else is a moot point if we do not secure our border," Miller said. "We need a fence line, we need patrols, we need sensors. We should take a very aggressive approach."

Obama has campaigned to extend the Bush tax cuts for poor and middle-class Americans but wants to let them expire for individuals making more than $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000. Republicans said that would damage many small business owners who are not incorporated.

Miller supports extending the cuts for everyone and would not agree to any significant changes until the entire tax code and corporate tax infrastructure are overhauled, he said.

"We need to make sure we don't take any drastic steps that can in any way hinder job growth and employment," Miller said.

He supports tax incentives for small businesses and believes South Carolina needs a new a venture capital fund for entrepreneurs that would spur growth and entice new industries to the state.

Other priorities include encouraging adult education, fighting for development of the port in Jasper County and enhancing national port security.

The state Republican Party has asked Miller to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from the liberal political site MoveOn.org, which once accused Gen. David Patraeus of misrepresenting facts of the Iraq war. Patraeus now commands the international security force in Afghanistan.

Miller said he won't return the funds and called Patraeus a great American who, with Gen. James Mattis, who recently took over U.S. Central Command, the "team we need in place."

Obama's timeline for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is a "moving target," he said.

"As a military tactitian, I don't believe in the concept of arbitrary timelines per se, but understanding that having large-scale troop deployments on the ground trying to secure mud hut villages is completely unrealistic," Miller said. "It's a foreign country, and their concept of freedom, of liberty, are not even close to ours."

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