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Social activists hunt for congressional seats ... in G.O.P. districts

Tom Perriello of Virginia is among a new breed of Democrats competing strongly in places that usually vote Republican.

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Perriello sees himself as a part of Generation X that has committed to public service in record numbers.

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"There was such a sense for us that the place to make a difference in the world was very direct. The entrepreneurial spirit was in the nonprofit sector," he said during an interview over two days of campaigning last week.

After a decade or so of working on nonprofit activity, he says, he and others in the social-entrepreneur movement saw a need to "take it to scale in the public sector."

"Politics was either going to be part of the problem or part of the solution, but it was no longer something we could ignore in the solace of the nonprofit sector," he says. "The struggle in our country right now is a struggle to replace the culture of corruption with a culture of service to country and community."

So far, the Perriello campaign's tithing project has included work at food banks and adult day-care centers, as well as building housing for the poor and repairing furniture.

"The tithing project is not just about ensuring that the least among us still has a voice in the political process. It's also about making sure we are part of a transformation in the country to restore a culture of service," he says.

It's a theme other insurgent Democratic hopefuls for Congress are adopting.

Larry Kissel, a high school social studies teacher who came within 330 votes of defeating Rep. Robin Hayes (R) of North Carolina in 2006, is organizing his 2008 campaign around the themes of public service.

The campaign office doubles as a "constant food drive," and staff requesting vacations are urged to "go anywhere you want to for as long as you want to as long as you help people where you are while you're there, " says campaign spokesman Tom Thacker.

"Larry is very much about leaving a positive footprint when you travel," he adds. "He's running for office because he wants to help people, and he's helping people while he's running for office."

Democrat Josh Segall, whose contest for Alabama's Third Congressional District is ranked by House Democrats with Perriello's as one of 20 "emerging races" in the 2008 campaign, is also combining an aggressive Internet campaign with local community service. While a college student, Mr. Segall started a farmers market as well as an advocacy group, Home Grown America, that urges Alabama colleges to buy food from local farmers.

"Our volunteers are not just volunteering for Josh but will be volunteering for public-service projects, such as farmers markets or highway maintenance," says campaign manager Don Weigel.

It's not clear whether social entrepreneurship on or off the Web will trump incumbency in November. Political handicappers caution that the district Perriello hopes to win is still heavily Republican and that the incumbent is well-known for high-quality constituent service.

"Perriello has a great profile in a very liberal district in Boulder, Colo., but that's not Virginia's Fifth," says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, who nonetheless has reclassified the race from "solid Republican" to "leaning Republican." "Voters in this district are hurting and don't consider Darfur activism to be a qualification for Congress."

"Unless there's a massive Democratic landslide and Republicans are so disillusioned they don't turn out, it's hard to see how [Perriello] gets to 51 percent," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

[Editor's note: The original version did not adequately reflect Tom Perriello ’s stand on gay marriage.]