WASHINGTON — No one has to tell Reps. John Spratt and Joe Wilson that South Carolina will be a battleground state in an intense election campaign that's shaping up to be a referendum on health care.
Nearly seven months before Election Day, Spratt and Wilson already have targets on their backs.
Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, is gunning for Spratt. She's asking her legions of conservative followers for campaign contributions to defeat the York Democrat in retaliation for his March 21 vote for the landmark health care bill.
Spratt's opponent, S.C. Sen. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, got a recent boost when Time magazine ranked him among 10 GOP challengers most likely to defeat incumbent lawmakers.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Wilson, a Lexington Republican, has been atop the Democrats' hit list since he shouted "You lie!" at President Barack Obama on Sept. 9 as Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on prime-time TV.
Obama's topic? Health care, of course.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made Rob Miller of Beaufort, Wilson's campaign foe, one of 13 challengers on its coveted "Red to Blue" list, giving him fundraising muscle, advice from top consultants and other help.
Thanks to the widespread national coverage of Wilson's yell, he and Miller raised a combined total of nearly $5.5 million last year, making their race the most expensive in South Carolina history and on track to challenge the richest ever in the country.
Spratt, seeking his 16th House term, is girding for what could be his closest contest since he held off the Republican tidal wave of 1994 and defeated Larry Bigham by a 52-48 percent margin.
"I don't think I'm invincible, by any means," Spratt, chairman of the House Budget Committee, told McClatchy. "I leave nothing to chance and take nothing for granted. I'll be running a full-fledged campaign."
Spratt, 67, disclosed that he has Parkinson's disease when he filed for re-election March 30 in Columbia.
Wilson, who bested Miller by a 54-46 margin in 2008, knows he's a marked man.
"I'm one of the national Democrats' top targets," Wilson said. "I actually take it as a backhanded compliment. It shows that I'm making a difference on behalf of the people of South Carolina."
Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican, is certain that the outcome of the fall elections will hinge on health care.
"We'll find out in November who won or lost this battle," DeMint told CBS' "Face the Nation" on March 28.
Palin, already a lightning rod, sparked controversy last month when she put a map of the United States on her Facebook page with cross hairs on the congressional districts of Spratt and 16 other Democratic lawmakers who voted for the health care legislation.
"We're going to reclaim the power of the people from those who disregarded the will of the people," Palin exhorted her troops. "We're going to fire them and send them back to the private sector, which has been shrinking thanks to their destructive, government-growing policies."
Spratt made Palin's list because voters in his 5th Congressional District backed her running mate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, in the 2008 presidential election. The other 16 House Democrats she's going after also represent such districts; three others from pro-McCain districts are retiring.
"We're going to hold them accountable for this disastrous Obamacare vote," Palin told her loyalists.
Palin's fighting words don't scare Spratt.
"I don't think the fact that she is targeting me amounts to anything," he said. "I'm not losing sleep over it, I can tell you that. I understand what she's trying to do, but listen - I know my district better than the former governor of Alaska."
Spratt said he'll take his chances campaigning in defense of the historic law that extends health insurance to 32 million Americans, bans coverage denials for pre-existing conditions and enacts other reforms.
"It's too early to tell how much impact health care will have in the election," Spratt said. "There are early indications that as people get better and more in-depth information about this new law, the more attracted they are to it."
The "burden of persuasion," Spratt said, is on Democratic candidates.
"We've got to make people understand what it really is," he said. "As they read about the (prohibition on denying coverage for) pre-existing conditions, the fact that premiums cannot be jacked up because of serious illness - a lot of people will react favorably to these particular provisions of the bill."
Spratt believes that Republicans are likely miscalculating in believing that health care will be their ticket to overwhelming victory in November.
"I don't think this issue is going to be the anchor (on Democrats) that some people think it will be in the next election," he said.
Maybe not, but Mulvaney is trying to tie it around Spratt's neck.
Mulvaney, a real estate developer who grew up in Charlotte, is asking supporters to sign a "health care petition" on his Web site (www.mulvaneyforcongress.com) and "pledge to formally reprimand" Spratt by voting him out of office.
Within an hour of House passage of the health care measure, Mulvaney said, "John Spratt has put his name in the history books as the author of one of the most dangerous, most expensive, most overreaching pieces of legislation America has ever seen."
The tables are turned in the neighboring 2nd Congressional District, where the Republican incumbent Wilson is trying to use the health care law to help him stay in office in a rematch of his 2008 race against Miller.
"I think that it will be a significant factor," Wilson said of the new law. "It directly relates to killing jobs, and it directly relates to excessive government spending, so it ties into the issues of greatest concern to the people I represent."
Wilson said his local GOP allies have opened the first Republican offices in Lexington and Richland counties in two decades.
More volunteers have signed up to work for his campaign, Wilson said, than came aboard during the entire 2008 two-year cycle.
"This is a volatile environment, but I like that people are very concerned," he said. "They're getting involved."
During St. Patrick's Day parades in Columbia and Hilton Head, Wilson said, thousands of people stood up from their lawn chairs and applauded as he passed them.
Wilson denied that the enthusiasm for him is the result of his celebrity status in the wake of his shout-out at Obama. As evidence, he cited the Labor Day Parade in Chapin - two days before his yell - where he said supporters were also boisterous.
"Over and over, hundreds and hundreds - maybe thousands - yelled out to me, 'No Obamacare!'" Wilson said. "They didn't give me standing ovations, but they certainly made their opinions clear."
The National Republican Campaign Committee has put out a string of releases accusing Miller of ducking the health care issue and refusing to take a stand on the Democratic bill that Congress passed.
"Liberal clone Rob Miller still refuses to state his position on the overall package that passed the House Sunday night," the NRCC said March 23.
Miller, a former Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq, declined to say whether he would have joined 34 Democratic lawmakers in voting against the health care measure. But he indicated he's not entirely pleased with it.
"Had I been in Congress, this bill would have been substantially different than what passed," Miller said. "Each and every member of Congress had the ability to play a significant role in crafting the piece of legislation that came to the floor."
Wilson, Miller said, abdicated his role.
"Congressman Wilson simply wanted no part in making this bill a better bill that would work for the best interests of his constituents," Miller said.