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Originally published Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 7:27 AM

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A Southern-style taste of health care politics

It may not bode well for Rep. Travis Childers that many voters in his rural Mississippi district have stronger opinions about President Barack Obama's health care plan than they do about the Democratic congressman.

Associated Press Writer

COLUMBUS, Miss. —

It may not bode well for Rep. Travis Childers that many voters in his rural Mississippi district have stronger opinions about President Barack Obama's health care plan than they do about the Democratic congressman.

Regardless of how Childers votes, the legislation is threatening to swamp the carefully crafted bipartisan brand he's been building with his Republican-leaning electorate for the past two years.

"I think it's probably going to bankrupt the United States of America," said Diane Wall, who manages a pool and spa store in Columbus, home to about 25,000 people and one of the largest cities in the district. Wall, who mostly votes Republican but often splits her ballot, said she isn't sure whether she'll support Childers in November. But "he might as well retire" if he votes for "Obamacare," she said.

Perhaps more than any other Democrat, Childers represents the political risks his party is taking by forging ahead on a party-line vote with one of the most sweeping legislative proposals in a generation. While the bill may boost Democratic credentials in some parts of the country, the party is having a hard time selling it in moderate and conservative areas like northern Mississippi's 1st Congressional District.

Voters in a few dozen swing districts will probably determine whether Democrats maintain control of the House in November, and even party moderates who vote against the health care package could get caught in a backlash.

Democrats already lost one such member in December, when freshman Rep. Parker Griffith, whose Alabama district sits just across the state line from Childers', cited the health care fight as the reason for his defection to the GOP. The former state senator not only opposed the bill but viewed it as so politically toxic that he was compelled to quit the Democratic Party.

It's no coincidence that many of the other 37 House Democrats who opposed the initial bill are relative newcomers facing difficult re-election prospects in November, including Reps. Glenn Nye of Virginia, Walt Minnick of Idaho and Frank Kratovil of Maryland.

Childers, 51, a rare Democrat in a conservative Southern stronghold, is near the top of the Republican target list.

The former chancery court clerk and nursing home owner from rural Booneville is serving his first full term after initially winning the seat in a special election amid an anti-Republican wave two years ago. His relatively poor district, which has no urban areas aside from small cities like Columbus, Grenada and Tupelo, had been in Republican hands for 12 years before his victory. It gave Obama just 37 percent of the vote.

The health care proposal appears to be playing into the same line of criticism here that has become something of a stereotype in conservative areas around the South: Democrats spend too much money on inefficient government programs and handouts.

While many conservatives and independents say they're not thrilled with the current health care system, they complain of what they see as costly, big-government solutions.

Shopping at a home improvement store on the outskirts of Columbus, Terry Williamson said he's gotten frustrated with trying to get his private insurance to approve an MRI scan to find out what's causing health problems that have forced him to use a cane. But he doesn't think the Democratic bill will help him, and he suspects it will cut into the Medicare benefits he's earned over the years.

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"I think they're going to take the money out of Medicare and use it to cover young people who don't want to buy insurance or people who are too lazy to work," he said. "They're just slinging money left and right."

Air Force retiree Howard Jenkins said getting the government more involved in health care will only create a "big mess."

"I don't know of anyone who's really for it," he said after lunch in the city's historic downtown.

Both men said Childers, who has frequently bucked his party, still could be in jeopardy over his party's direction.

"As far as a Democrat, he's done fairly well, but what's going on in general, he might be in trouble," Williamson said.

Childers has worked for months to make it known that he voted against the initial House bill, which passed in November with a slim five-vote margin. With Democrats scrambling for votes on final passage this week, he announced Thursday he intends to vote "no" again.

While he said he wishes Democratic leaders had moved more slowly to sell the package in bite-sized chunks, he doesn't concede that a "yes" vote could have cost him his job or that passage of the bill even without him could complicate his re-election.

His party is betting his political future - and the congressional majorities it worked so hard to build in 2006 and 2008 - on it.

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