"Freedom Fries" Booster In Primary Fight

The walls at Cubbie's diner used to be plastered with pictures, stickers and campaign signs for Rep. Walter Jones, who championed the eatery's idea to serve up "freedom fries" in the days before the start of the Iraq war.

But the Republican soured on the war soon after it started, and now there's a new banner hanging above the grill: Joe McLaughlin for Congress.

"Walter abandoned us," said Cubbie's owner Neal Rowland. "Walter hopped on the bandwagon. But when the heat got turned up, he hopped off."

The diner's decision to support Jones' opponent in next week's primary reflects growing discord with the seven-term congressman in this coastal North Carolina district, home to the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune and other bases. Though many Americans agree with his position, Jones represents a district where his anti-war stance could cost him his job.

Last year, Jones was one of a handful of Republican congressmen to vote in favor of a timetable for troop withdrawals. One of the others - Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrest - lost his primary in February to a challenger who said the vote showed a lack of support for the troops.

Jones solidified his stance as a war supporter five years ago, when Cubbie's served up the first hot batch of "freedom fries" as symbolic protest to France's opposition to the war in Iraq. Inspired, Jones pushed for "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" in the U.S. House cafeteria, too.

Jones' views on the war changed soon after, as he began sending condolence letters to the families of every American service member killed in Iraq. His increasing anti-war efforts over the past two years have placed him further at odds with the Republican Party. He wrote to President Bush to oppose the 2007 boost in troop levels and was one of two GOP congressmen to vote against the administration's terrorist surveillance program.

"We are in our sixth year of a war that Rumsfeld and his advisers thought would be a three- to six-month war," Jones said. "Any war strategy has to have an end point. You've got to have a definition of victory."

His opponent, McLaughlin, took notice. A former Army officer at Fort Bragg and county commissioner in the community that surrounds Camp Lejeune, he has already raised twice as much as Jones' 2006 general election challenger, a local television meteorologist with no previous political experience. As McLaughlin campaigned door-to-door near the Marine base, he found the war was usually the first issue to come up.

"Our Marines and sailors are fighting for a noble cause and he doesn't get it," McLaughlin told Terri Aubuchon, a Republican small business owner he met while canvassing recently. They talked about Jones' desire to withdraw American forces from Iraq.

"If we pull out there will be chaos there and chaos eventually here. You've got to find a way to get out of it and leave it better than you found it," Aubuchon said. "It is always going to be an issue. There are so many people that hate us."

Jonathan Morris, who teaches political science at East Carolina University, said lawmakers who cross party lines on divisive issues often face strong primary challenges.

"There's no issue that's more divisive right now than Iraq," Morris said. "Walter Jones crossed the (party) line. And I'm sure when he did it, he knew there was going to be a fallout. He had to know that he would have some primary opposition."

The challenger who beat Gilchrest in Maryland did so in part by spending $1.2 million, compared to the roughly $100,000 McLaughlin has spent on his campaign. Jones has outspent McLaughlin by about 6-to-1, and Morris thinks he should be favored to keep his seat.

Jones, who switched to the GOP in 1993 after losing a race for the neighboring House seat his father held for 26 years, has always been a safe incumbent. He had no primary challenger in 2006, and his margin of victory in the 2006 general election was 38 percentage points.

Despite his opposition to the war, Jones retains some strong military support in his district, particularly among retired Marines and other veterans.

Jones' grandfather was wounded in a gas attack in World War I and his family had to sue to get his veteran benefits, a bitter fight that still motivates him. He was instrumental in opening three veterans health clinics in 2004, a move that reduced the 100-mile trip vets had to take previously for care.

"A lot of guys that are against Walter haven't been in the fight for vets," said Joe McCammond, a 61-year-old veteran from Morehead City who served 27 years in the Army and the Marines.

Jones is one of only four members of North Carolina's 13-member House delegation to face a challenge in the state's May 6 primary. Incumbent GOP Rep. Sue Myrick, of Charlotte, faces Jack Stratton, of Gastonia; Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry, of Cherryville, faces Lance Sigmon, of Newton; and Democratic Rep. Brad Miller, of Raleigh, faces Derald Hafner, of Franklinton.

Among those uncontested in the primary are former Congressional Black Caucus head Mel Watt and freshman Heath Shuler, an ex-NFL quarterback who knocked off an eight-term incumbent in 2006.