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'American Idol' runner-up Clay Aiken winning political respect in North Carolina

Democratic nominee Clay Aiken signs an autograph for a constituent after a campaign forum in Cary, North Carolina, April 28, 2014. REUTERS/C
Democratic nominee Clay Aiken signs an autograph for a constituent after a campaign forum in Cary, North Carolina, April 28, 2014. REUTERS/C

By Colleen Jenkins

CARY, North Carolina (Reuters) - "American Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken readily signs autographs and poses for selfies with voters in his bid for a North Carolina congressional seat, but tries hard to keep his pitch at campaign stops focused on political issues.

"I have done my very best not to sing," said Aiken, 35. "Because I think there's a challenge ... to get people to not see me as a singer but instead as someone who is capable and wants to fight for them."

The entertainer has gained respect as he seeks the Democratic nomination in his home state's 2nd congressional district next Tuesday. In April, the Washington-based Cook Political Report admitted surprise after Aiken proved to be well-versed on political affairs, "washing away any notion he's another superficial, stage-managed Hollywood star dabbling in politics as a new hobby."

Even so, political experts say the first-time candidate is in an uphill, perhaps futile, battle to win the primary and then unseat the incumbent in a district North Carolina's Republican-led legislature re-drew to favor their party.

U.S. Representative Renee Ellmers, 50, a former nurse, beat a moderate Democrat for the seat during the Republicans' national electoral sweep in 2010 and two years later won her second term with 56 percent of the vote.

In mid-April, her campaign had nearly six times more cash on hand than Aiken's, finance reports show, and most analysts predict she will be re-elected in November, barring any serious gaffes or a better-than-expected turnout for Democrats.

"(Aiken) can do everything right and still basically end up having no chance because of factors beyond his control," said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

But Aiken, who lives in Cary and taught special education in North Carolina before his 2003 "Idol" appearance launched his singing career, remains unconvinced that the unwieldy U-shaped district is too conservative for a Democrat to win.

He has spent three months telling retirees in Pinehurst, military veterans in Fayetteville, and cattle farmers in Siler City why he is the one best positioned to defeat a congresswoman who he says has ignored the needs of her constituents.

TACKLING THE ISSUES

Aiken showed strengths beyond the recognition factor this week at a retirement community in Cary, where he spoke with engaging ease about immigration, Russia, education and fracking.

"We make people enthusiastic," he said. "If my name is not on the ballot (after the primary), then I worry people won't pay attention."

Aiken's claims that the congresswoman has spent too much time in Washington and ignored voters are "ridiculous," said Ellmers' campaign spokeswoman, Jessica Wood.

"While Clay Aiken is running around on the Colbert show, the congresswoman is doing the work of the people in the Second District," Wood said.

To challenge Ellmers, Aiken must first win the primary. There are no public polls to suggest how he will fare against his two Democratic opponents, but he has been far outspent by one of them.

Asheboro businessman Keith Crisco, 71, a former state commerce secretary, had loaned $530,000 to his $754,497 war chest as of April 16. He has run four television ads; Aiken has run one.

Aiken said he is not interested in buying a seat and his $286,659 fundraising total reported by mid-April showed no personal loans. His campaign said he has since put $50,000 into the race.

A third candidate, Fayetteville counselor Toni Morris, 49, has not reported any fundraising.

Crisco said his experience in business and public service offsets his lack of name recognition compared with Aiken, who also appeared in "The Celebrity Apprentice" on television and the spoof musical "Monty Python's Spamalot" on Broadway.

"You've got to be competent on the issues," Crisco said. "Just to get attention is not enough."

Aiken, who is openly gay, said his personal life has been raised only once by a voter in the state that two years ago voted to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

"LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues ... are not why I'm running and they're not why people are voting," Aiken said in an interview.

A half dozen people interviewed by Reuters said Aiken had impressed them at candidate events, earning their vote or at least persuading them he was worth serious consideration.

"I was pleasantly surprised to hear real depth and commitment," said Karen Howard, 48, of Chapel Hill. "He brings an energy and passion that I haven't seen from the other candidates."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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