Carol Maichin's face lights up when Joe Finley reaches out his hand to introduce himself at the South Bay Diner on the Sunrise Highway here on Long Island.
It's not often that a voter gets excited at being solicited by a politician, but Mr. Finley is no ordinary pol: He's a New York City fireman a veteran of 9/11 running for office for the first time.
Though Finley is still a long shot in his bid to unseat popular incumbent Steve Israel (D), his fireman status gives the novice Republican an edge other challengers could only dream of.
Yet it doesn't automatically mean he'll be trading in his rubber boots for wingtips and a desk in Congress. Ms. Maichin's response, in fact, is indicative of the challenges he still faces. "I've been very happy with what Steve Israel has done for the school district in Bayshore," says the pragmatic Republican voter. "But I would like to read more about Mr. Finley."
The final judgment of people like Maichin could help turn this into one of the fall's most compelling political races, in essence pitting the power of incumbency against the salience of heroism in a community still rocked by the terrorist attacks.
Indeed, from war heroes to astronauts to sports legends, people perceived to be heroic have always struck a positive chord in American politics. But their ultimate success is dependent on far more than their past achievements.
"We're very smitten with people who've made sacrifices and put themselves in harm's way," says John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska. "It's a good first step, but you also have to show you're not a one-trick pony, that you've got some substance there."
Right now, analysts give Congressman Israel the edge. Incumbents are overwhelmingly reelected 99 percent of the time on Long Island. But the race is still competitive, in part because Mr. Israel faces a second fireman challenger as well. John Keenan, another 9/11 veteran, is running on the Green Party ticket.
While both have to be careful not to be seen as exploiting their firemen status, it could help bring vital name recognition as well as more fundraising than the average challenger could muster. "Money is very important in these races," say James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington. "It's unlikely that an incumbent will be beaten unless the nonincumbent has at least $1.5 million."
Finley is closemouthed about his fundraising so far. But it's clear he's hoping his previous job and working-class roots will help voters identify with him, giving the candidate mileage money can't buy.
The race is being run in New York's Second Congressional District, a predominantly blue-collar section of Long Island made up of tightly packed suburbs dotted with American flags and kids' bicycles. Most of the neighborhoods are older, built in the 1950s and 1960s, and crisscrossed by the highways built to carry commuters the one-hour drive to the city.
It's conservative country at least by New York standards. But the Second is still a swing district, even though its lines were recently redrawn. It has deep Democratic roots: Both Bill Clinton and Al Gore won in the past two presidential races. But it's socially conservative.
Before Mr. Israel won in 2000, Republican Rick Lazio, who ran unsuccessfully against Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Senate, held the seat. The voters here, like Maichin, are known for being discerning and independent.
"This is an electorate that doesn't care about Republicans or Democrats," says Israel. "These are New York voters, and New York voters want to know 'What have you done for me today?' " His office contends he's done plenty and touts the more than "$30 million in appropriations" he's managed to bring to the district, despite being a first-term congressman.
In a traditional race, that could help ensure his reelection. But the introduction of 9/11's so-called heroes could change the districts' political currency. Finley, a third-generation firefighter who lost his father in the line of duty, is determined to make increasing the nation's security and support for President Bush's agenda top issues.
Mr. Keenan, Finley's political bookend, is running because he believes the country is completely on the wrong track, giving too much to the wealthy and corporations and not enough to working people.
While the two go door to door collecting signatures and introducing themselves, political analysts say, incumbent Israel will not be able to take them on the same way he would other challengers.
"That's a very delicate line Israel will have to adopt," says Mr. Hibbing. "He'll have to state his positions and criticize the fellow when he deserves to be criticized, but without appearing to show any disrespect for what he's been through."
In the same way, the fireman, too, will have to walk a careful line. "It's going to be a very tricky thing to exploit, 9/11," says Michael Mezey, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. "People could say you're capitalizing on tragedy."
The ambivalence over how to deal with 9/11's powerful emotional resonance is visible in the way the two firefighters approach the issue. The terrorist attack and its impact are central to Finley's campaign and why he's running.
"We lost nine guys from our firehouse, and I know on a personal level what a devastating loss that is," he says. "The terrorists, when they attacked us on 9/11, they murdered our loved ones, but their ultimate goal is to destroy our economy. So we need to do things now ... and this is an opportunity for me to do something."
Dressed in khakis and a white shirt, Mr. Keenan takes a different tack. He's still unsure about whether to tell people he's a firefighter, let alone a 9/11 "hero." "If you don't like my politics, don't vote for me," he says with a kind of firehouse pragmatism. "I know people look up to us and admire us, but it has nothing to do with why I'm running. I don't want to be voted in because I'm a city fireman. I want people to vote for me because they agree with me."
Indeed, Keenan says he loves being a firefighter and doesn't really want to be elected. He's running to draw attention to the Green Party's alternative platform.
Finley, on the other hand, who's retiring because of his lung difficulties, is running as a way to continue serving the public.