TWO years ago, Democrats did everything in their power to help Rep. Bill Grant return to Congress. This year, Democrats are doing everything they can to hurl him out of Congress. Mr. Grant, you see, is a party-switcher - one of more than 200 Democratic officeholders, mostly Southerners, who have joined the GOP since 1988. Accepting an invitation from President Bush and Republican chairman Lee Atwater, Grant jumped off the Democratic donkey in February 1989. Democrats, he says, no longer represent the conservative views of north Florida.
But Grant not only switched; he also kept the cash - Democrats say it was $45,000 - that the party helped raise in 1988 to keep him in office.
``We'd like to beat him very badly,'' growls Alan Stonecipher, executive director of the Democratic Party of Florida. ``We feel that Grant didn't play straight.''
Jon Ausmas, a Democratic strategist, is equally blunt: ``This is a guy with no integrity,'' he says. This anger has produced one of the most hard-fought House battles this autumn - between Grant and Pete Peterson, who was an Air Force pilot for 26 years and a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Democrats are particularly miffed because Grant didn't resign after changing parties, a move they say would have demonstrated his integrity.
Mr. Ausmas points to another Democrat-become-Republican, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who immediately stepped down from the Senate after going to the GOP.
``When Gramm resigned, there was a special election where he gave voters an option to put him back in or take him out,'' Ausmas observes. Texans, of course, kept Gramm in.
Mr. Stonecipher claims the rash of Democratic defections during the past two years in the country ``has already run out of steam.'' But Democrats are aware that unless switchers like Grant can be punished, the trend could threaten the party's majority status in legislatures across the South. Defeating Grant has become both a matter of revenge, and of political survival.
The list of Southern party-switchers already includes three congressmen - Grant, Tommy Robertson of Arkansas, and Jim McCrery of Louisiana. It also includes 10 state senators and 16 state representatives. Across the region, 64 Democratic officials have switched to the GOP in Mississippi, 47 in Florida, 22 in South Carolina, 20 in Louisiana, 19 in Texas, and 15 in Alabama.
To bring Grant to his knees, Democrats first tried recruiting someone well known in the region, but failed. Mr. Peterson, a former F-4 pilot who was shot down in Vietnam, isn't native to this region, nor is he well known. But Ausmas claims Peterson has already pulled within 2 points of Grant.
The outcome remains uncertain, since both candidates have a lot going for them.
Peterson, a soft-spoken man, spent 6-1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, where he was tortured. He claims no hero status, saying: ``That was just survival.''
But Democrats feel they can use the hero-with-guts issue directly against Grant. Peterson was put through all kinds of abuse but never changed sides.
The Vietnamese ``tied your feet, arms, and elbows [behind you], and laid you on the ground on your stomach, kind of like a rocking chair,'' Peterson explains reluctantly at a reporter's request. Then the Vietnamese inquisitors would push down hard on the ropes, breaking bones, he says.
``He's a man of integrity. That's the key issue here,'' says Tom Pyle, who was Peterson's cellmate for four years in North Vietnam and a former F-105 pilot.
The former POW says his main goal in Washington would be to restore ``confidence in government.'' He also raps Grant for failing to address the needs of his district, which has the lowest income in the state, the greatest flight of young people except in the Tallahassee area, and the highest infant mortality rate.
Ausmas, who serves as Peterson's campaign manager, notes that despite these problems, Grant has ``never introduced an education bill, he's never introduced a social bill or a jobs bill. ... Those three issue areas are going to kill him.''
Grant obviously disagrees, noting that he is intimately familiar with the needs and aspirations of this rural north Florida area once known as ``pork chop'' country. As for switching parties, voters don't really care, he says.
``I know these people. This is my home,'' he explains, and ``political parties just are not driving this campaign.''
As for Democratic leaders: ``I have long opposed party bosses, and I don't like people telling me what I have to do and have not to do.''
On current issues, north Florida now is Republican, he argues. Those issues include controlling federal spending, protecting the flag with a constitutional amendment, favoring capital punishment, and prayer in the schools, he explains.
Going over to the GOP wasn't a sudden decision, he says. For a long time he tried to convince national Democrats, including Michael Dukakis, to get in touch with ``mainstream America.'' Failing that, he appealed to state Democratic leaders.
``They ridiculed me,'' he says. ``It became my belief that I could more positively represent my people with the government as part of his [Bush's] administration.''
The result has been positive, he contends, noting that among top Washington officials who have visited the district since he took office include the United States secretaries of agriculture and transportation.
``We have a more positive impact now with the government than ever before,'' Grant says. ``I'm pleased I [switched parties].'' Next month he'll find out whether the voters are, too.