Joe Miller, Alaska's surprising Republican nominee for Senate, may be a political novice. But he went to Washington early in life.
In America's bicentennial year of 1976, Miller's Christian-bookstore-owner-and-itinerant-minister dad packed his family into their yellow Plymouth station wagon. They drove from rural Kansas to the nation's capital, staying at campgrounds along the way. In Washington, they visited the museums and gawked at the inside of the U.S. Capitol dome.
Miller, who was 9 years old at the time, said the visit taught him that "the nation we live in is extraordinary." His mom even dressed him up as Gen. Lafayette for a bicentennial parade.
Today Miller, 43, hopes to make a return trip to Washington-this time for a six-year stay in the Senate. There the stature Miller earned with his 2,000-vote primary upset over moderate Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski could position Miller as the general of the Tea Party movement.
But to get there Miller is taking an interesting campaign track for a state long addicted to feeding from the federal trough. Alaska is the state that long-time Sen. Ted Stevens made sure ranked near the nation's top when it came to getting federal money (including $400 million for the infamous "bridge to nowhere").
Miller preaches against the dependency mindset created by federal dollars. He frequently sends the mainstream media into frenzy over remarks about the dangers of bottomless unemployment benefits, how the nation needs to rethink Social Security, and why the federal minimum wage should be left to the states.
Miller says he does not want to eliminate federal dollars completely. He just wants to bring more power back to the states where better decisions can be made closer to the people they will affect. "Alaskans understand that the country is nearing bankruptcy," he said. "They understand that if we don't start preparing for the future we are going to be completely upside down."
Some of Miller's biggest challenges may come from inside the Republican Party. The Senate GOP leaders initially backed their colleague Murkowski in the primary, but they are saying all the right things about Miller now.
Still, Miller says he is "not ready to say they've embraced the Tea Party message. I think that will take some persuasion."
He calls the Tea Party a legitimate third-party movement to restrain the growth of government. He expects this "new way of thinking" to be bolstered by new members coming to Capitol Hill with a voter mandate. "It will be very difficult to continue business as usual in both the House and Senate," Miller predicts. "The American people are saying we want the federal government changed. They won't tolerate anything less."
Miller's resumé suggests that his passion for the American adventure has long driven his decisions: He graduated from West Point and earned a Bronze Star while seeing combat in the first Gulf War.
A law degree from Yale set him up for a career at a high-powered East Coast law firm. But Miller, who sports the beard of an outdoorsman, grew up a hunter. He saw in Alaska the challenge of settling in the nation's last frontier.
Since moving to Alaska in 1994, Miller has earned a master's degree in economics, served as a state and federal magistrate judge, and in 2004 made an unsuccessful run for state representative.
The decision to run for the U.S. Senate this year was not one he made alone. He sought support from his wife, Kathleen, and their eight children. "Our children are not going to have the America as we know it," Kathleen, a teacher, said when I asked her why she approved her husband's decision.
But to earn a trip to Washington 34 years after his first visit, Miller has to defeat a familiar face: Murkowski, who decided to launch a write-in campaign. Polls show they are in a tight race. But both hold double-digit leads over Democrat Scott McAdams.
Still Miller, who Slate magazine predicted would "probably get trounced" in the primary, said polls are tricky in Alaska's wide-open spaces.
He trailed by more than 30 points to Murkowski in summer primary polls. But a Sarah Palin endorsement, a $500,000 ad push by the Tea Party Express, and a pro-life measure on the primary ballot boosted the pro-life Miller over pro-abortion Murkowski.
Now, when he talks about the campaign and his background, he veers into the larger narrative of American history. He recalls growing up during the Vietnam War and the Carter presidency when "we lost a lot of pride in America." Then Miller remembers Ronald Reagan coming along and reigniting everyone's faith in the nation.
When asked if this is what fueled the patriotic drive that brought him to the run for the Senate, Miller grew silent. Then the tears began to flow: "I love this country, and I know we don't have much time to save it," he told me with red eyes. "We are being destroyed from the inside."