Peter King is worried that his fellow Republicans are turning into wimps.
“I find it frustrating sometimes with the Republicans—you want to shake them and say ‘Let’s do this,’” said Mr. King, the pugnacious Long Island Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. “A lot of Republicans, when they get thrown off their game, they are scrambling to find a new message. To me, if you believe in what you are saying, you continue to say the same thing.”
Mr. King is perhaps the last unapologetic Iraq hawk in the entire New York State delegation in Washington. More than any of his beleaguered local Republican colleagues, he is sticking with the original G.O.P. game plan and talking in unrelentingly tough terms about the war. Never mind that the teetering war effort has other Republican candidates across the country changing the subject and has forced even President George Bush to abandon his “stay the course” rhetoric.
“If you know what you are talking about and believe in what you are saying, go forward; otherwise, what the hell?” Mr. King said Friday afternoon in the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South, where he had addressed a luncheon for security professionals minutes earlier. “Not just from the sanctimonious side. I mean, it works. It does resonate.”
Mr. King, a disarmingly down-to-earth caricature of a gruff, 62-year-old blue-collar Long Islander, has earned himself a reputation during his 14 years in Congress as a philosophical conservative but a political maverick, counting among his allies John McCain as well as Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Now, some polls suggest that he too is susceptible to the noxious political climate that’s having such a worrying effect on the country’s Republicans. He is facing a serious challenge from Dave Mejias, a Nassau County state legislator, who is doing everything possible to paint Mr. King as a right-wing war enabler and lackey of the profoundly unpopular President. An RT Strategies and Constituent Dynamics poll conducted between Oct. 8 and 10 showed Mr. King’s lead down to only two points, 47 percent to 45 percent.
Mr. King has suddenly become a living test case for the G.O.P.’s worst-case scenario.
“It says a lot that he is in trouble; it is testimony to the toxic nature of Iraq in this election cycle,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “In New York, Pete King is the best example of Bush’s weakness and Iraq’s weakness for Republicans.”
Mr. King, a devoted amateur boxer reared by Irish immigrants in Sunnyside, Queens, has always identified himself with the tough guys in the room.
His longtime support for the Irish Republican Army proved useful when the Clinton administration called on his help to broker Ireland’s landmark peace agreement, leading to an unusually cordial relationship with the Clintons.
Even as Republican representation on Long Island dwindled over the years, Mr. King kept winning with an eclectic mix of hawkish foreign policy, conservative social values and an often liberal economic philosophy.
His career reached new heights last year, when he ascended to the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee, a perch he often uses to criticize other Republicans who are competing with New York for federal money and resources.
True to form, Mr. King has refused to soften his act in the current campaign, which promises to be his most competitive since first running for Congress seven terms ago in 1992. He shows no sign of reining in the innate combativeness that he likens to that of another popular Republican, Rudy Giuliani.
“We are much from that blue-collar, neighborhood-oriented, law-and-order hard-hat background, and we just feel you have to kick ass—you really do,” Mr. King said.
Lately, he has been taking American Muslims to task for not speaking out against Islamic terrorism, charging that as much as 85 percent of the country’s mosques are run by extremists and that civil liberties, such as the right of habeas corpus, should be denied to suspected terrorists. On Friday afternoon, he expressed his high regard for the Nassau County Police Department for having “quite a few mosques” under surveillance.
“He’s using terror the same way Republicans in the Southwest are using immigration,” said Mr. Sabato. “This is a way to tap into fear, which is one of the primary emotions of politics.”
Mr. King counters that he isn’t trying to scare voters; he’s just trying to remind them of the frightening realities that threaten New York in a post-9/11 world.
“People do want to hear this,” he said. “They do want these issues discussed.”
Last Friday, Mr. King was invited to appear as the guest of honor at a gathering of law-enforcement officials and security professionals at the Athletic Club. Large, stern men in dark suits sat around drinking liquor, checking BlackBerries and eating ham in a room overlooking Central Park. The placards on the table read “ADT” and “Universal Security Systems.” Police commissioners were on the guest list. Mr. King, a Twin Towers pin on his lapel, darted his dark eyes around the room and buttered a roll.
Before he rose to speak, the security professionals around the dining room described Mr. King in heroic terms. He was a “great American” and a “straight talker.”
“Peter King is right on the ball,” said Joseph Levy, an account executive at Universal Security Systems, a Long Island–based company which has sought Mr. King’s help at the Homeland Security Committee. “The guy is a professional.”
Mr. King climbed to a podium in front of gray, rain-splashed windows. The room went quiet except for fork tines touching plates as Mr. King spoke about Islamic terrorism.
“Very literally and quite frankly,” he said, America needed “to kill them overseas before they get here.”
He received hearty applause when he expressed support for the Patriot Act and the prosecution of newspapers that reveal secret government programs in wartime.
“We can’t afford political correctness or to look the other way,” he said.
Mr. King got a standing ovation, and for more than 45 minutes afterward he was greeted by well-wishers saying things like “I’m glad we got guys like you looking out for us” and “Here’s my card—I’m certified in homeland security.” He asked after friends’ families and signed a copy of his novel, Terrible Beauty. ( It was criticized in Kirkus Reviews as a piece of agitprop for the I.R.A., Mr. King’s preferred cause before 9/11 converted him into the committed foe of international terrorism.)
In between congratulations and appreciations from cops and friends, Mr. King acknowledged that he was an endangered breed of New York hawk.
“I am what I am,” he said. “My speech today is what I am.”
So Mr. King gets points for self-actualization. But does it amount to a winning campaign strategy?
His opponent, for one, thinks not.
“This guy is just so out of touch,” said Mr. Mejias, a 36-year-old Nassau County legislator from North Farmingdale.
He pointed to Mr. King’s recent comment that traveling through Baghdad “was like being in Manhattan,” and quoted from a letter Mr. King wrote to a constituent last year which included the line about thanking God every night that George Bush is President.
Long Island is no longer a hospitable environment for politicians who make those kinds of statements—particularly in a year in which Democrats Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton are likely to pile up huge margins over the Republicans at the top of the ticket.
“I’m very lucky,” admitted Mr. Mejias. “There is a perfect storm happening here. There is a tsunami, and I know that he’s nervous.”
But Mr. King says that the much-discussed October poll was flawed and that his internal polling shows him up 23 points, even as it shows his district overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. Spitzer for Governor. And anyway, he wants to make clear, this is no time for a poll-tested campaign.
“We are at war. We are at war,” he said, sounding genuinely angry and perplexed. “I mean, you can’t say we are going to have Americans dying every day if there is no purpose for it. And we have to show that and say why we believe it. If people disagree, then fine.”