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Cooter: Congress!

Whether he wins or loses, Ben "Cooter" Jones revels in his role.

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Proof of Jones' popularity is evident by throngs of T-shirt- and flannel-clad locals bearing stickers that read "'Cooter'! Congress!"

The all-white crowd of several hundred kids and grown-ups hovers around craft booths and barbecue stands and spills into a field where an oxen-driven cart and costumed volunteer infantry vie for attention. Neither comes close to getting the attention generated by the orange 1969 Dodge Charger with 01 decals and a Confederate flag painted on top. It's Jones' replica of the "General Lee," the famous car from the "Dukes of Hazzard."

Jones, of course, played Cooter the friendly mechanic on the TV show from 1979 to 1985.

Lots of those here today have come to show support for Jones, the celebrity politician who says, if elected, he'll "listen to their every word." From the looks of things, it is an uplifting pledge in a community where flowers, fake or real, mount cement-covered wells like graves. Many are next to dry. And it's hard not to notice that an unlucky spell of some kind seems to have sucked troughs of life out of the place.

Jones hopes to replenish this. Jones is the independent Democratic challenger to Eric Cantor, the first-term Republican incumbent in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, a newly redrawn District that stretches from the Richmond suburbs to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pundits have said Jones' chances of winning the notoriously conservative constituency are next to nil. Last year the 7th district handed Gov. Mark Warner his worst loss — with the highest turnout — of any district in the state.

With less than two weeks to go before the Nov. 5 elections, Jones is clinging to what can only be called crazy optimism that an 11th-hour gust of support will thrust him again to Washington.

He has spent time in Congress before. He represented a suburban Atlanta district for two terms from 1989 to 1993. Today he lives in Rappahannock County with his wife, Alma, and operates "Cooter's Place," a shop dedicated to the memory of the "Dukes of Hazzard." Recently he opened a second location in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Jones has admitted that his congressional race "is straight uphill" in a region that has voted heavily Republican in the past. And Rep. Cantor's coffers are brimming over compared to Jones'. As of June 30, Cantor had received close to $1 million in contributions, including those from political action committees. Jones eschews PAC money, he says. As of June 30, he had received $53,000.

Even though the outcome seems predictable, the race has won a following in the media. And Virginia newspapers from the Washington Post to the Page News and Courier have eked out a joke or two about the apparent dichotomy between the contenders. Earlier this summer, Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia, expressed his enthusiasm for the contest as "rooting for the race" because no other statewide post in this year's election is remarkable to watch. Still, Sabato told a reporter for Cox News: "'Cooter's Return to Congress' — that show is up for renewal, but it will not be renewed."

Jones appears undeterred by such predictions. After all, Jones won his Georgia seat in Congress in districts that were thought to be Republican — although many contend it was because his opponent was fraught with scandal. Jones lost his party's primary in 1992 to his opponent. Then he lost the general election in 1994 to Newt Gingrich.

At the time, Jones told his supporters it was the "end of my political career." "I'm never going to do that again," he said.

Then he moved back home to Virginia. His county was gerrymandered. Before he knew it, his frustration that Cantor was running unopposed and was practically declared unbeatable was too much. So Jones decided to run again.

People at the festival appear happy that he did. Even so, the opportunity for a resurrected life in politics is not what seems to drive Jones. It is his other former life that makes him a standout at places like the Beaverdam Heritage Day celebration.

By late afternoon, almost all the "'Cooter!' Congress!" placards and stickers have been handed out or picked up from the campaign booth. As vendors slowly begin packing their wares, the band starts playing and Jones starts singing the theme song from the "Dukes of Hazzard" for a second time. It is the finale.

All of a sudden members of the 15th Volunteer Infantry shoot off their cannon — BOOM! Few in the crowd even bat an eye. White smoke billows from the hot cannon and lingers over the field.

The dressed-up soldiers have lit the ancient thing intermittently all day but this is the first time it's interrupted Jones. He stops the band. At the top of his lungs he bellows into the mic: "Hold yer f-i-r-e!" Those seated in front on 2-by-4s and haystacks laugh and laugh and laugh.

Jones thanks the crowd for coming and ambles offstage to shake hands and sign autographs. A tent is set to the right of the stage where memorabilia — "Cooter" T-shirts, glossy 8-by-10 pictures of the "Dukes of Hazzard" cast, license-plate covers and toy cars — are for sale. In minutes, a dozen fans form a line for autographs. Jones signs a glossy picture of the cast for a woman named Alice. From his back pocket he pulls a red Sharpie and fills in a heart he'd just drawn.

Dressed in black jeans, a white shirt and black vest, Jones appears much larger in life than on television. His stark blue eyes stare squarely into the face of each fan that approaches. He wipes his brow with the back of his hand, and talks about his place in the hollow where shade prevails.

When a reporter asks if he'd like to talk politics, Jones politely says no. "This isn't about the politicking, this is about the fun," he says. He notes that the election is gaining on him fast and grins widely. "But if somebody asks me a question about the issues," he says, "I'll be glad to answer." S

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