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Florida Townsfolk Cheer For Hometown Warrior In the GOP 'Revolution'

BLINK at the wrong time, or drive too quickly, and you'll miss this town. It's a small dot on a gray line on a map. The only sign of community is a red-brick schoolhouse rising from a patchwork quilt of peanut farms and downy cotton fields.

It is hard to imagine a place more removed from the machinations of Washington, or a place where the head-butting between Republican and Democrat has less relevance to daily life.

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But appearances, in this case, are deceptive. ''I feel like I'm part of something historic,'' says school principal Rick Hunsucker. ''We're all saying 'Rah Rah' for our guy in there fighting.''

''Our guy'' is Rep. Joe Scarborough, a brash, charismatic young Republican with a Georgian drawl. When the people of Florida's western panhandle elected him last year, they had no idea they were enlisting in a revolution. Now, while many voters across the country grouse at Washington's political culture, people here take pride in being one of 73 districts that helped topple the status quo on Capitol Hill by sending a new generation of lawmakers to Washington - many of whom are pushing radical reform.

As Congress and the White House continue to wage one of the most stubborn budget battles of modern times, a ride through Mr. Scarborough's district shows why the Republican freshmen see themselves as guardians of a cause. At least in this district, congressman and voter share an uncommon bond.

''It's a general 'Go get 'em, Joe' kind of thing,'' says Luke McCoy, a Pensacola radio talk-show host. ''It's like pulling for your football team.''

Florida's First Congressional District is mostly rural, made up of small towns tucked in pine groves or farmland below Alabama. Most of its strength, however, is on the Gulf Coast, where tourists sun on beaches nicknamed the ''Redneck Riviera'' and pilots learn how to operate military flying machines. Eight bases house fixed-wing, helicopter, and special operations for the Navy and Air Force.

This is ''Bubba'' land, home of the Reagan Democrat. Before Scarborough became the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent this district, people split their vote, voting for Republican presidents and Democratic congressmen.

That changed, perhaps permanently, when eight-term incumbent Earl Hutto retired, paving the way for a fiery but little-known attorney to summon a new era.

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''He plays to the outrage over government being too big,'' says Earl Bowden, a senior editorial writer at the Pensacola News Journal. ''He likes to say we are the new wave. America is changing.''

Scarborough holds town meetings almost every weekend, and calls the local talk shows even from Washington to keep in touch with his constituents.

While the president and congressional leaders point fingers at each other for closing the government, Scarborough, like many of his fellow freshmen, brags about it. Much to his constituents' delight, he broke with Speaker Newt Gingrich when an early draft of the budget would have raised the public debt: Balance in seven years, or Joe votes no.

That's not just bravado. The freshmen know they were sent to change Washington. They saw what happened to the large Democratic class before them, which rode in on the Clinton wave in 1992 and was tossed out two years later over such issues as crime and health care. This GOP class knows that if the public is cheering, it is also watching. The budget bill is crucial.

''For a lot of freshmen, this month has to be the darkest of times,'' says John Cogan, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.. ''All their hopes and dreams for reform are wrapped up in the budget bill. Voters are very skeptical about promises from elected officials. There is a different standard now.''

That standard is a two-edged sword. While the public wants a smaller, more responsible government, it also wants services maintained. In this district, where the debris from two of this season's worst hurricanes still clutters tidy home-front hedges, such expectations come with a high price tag.

In his first year in office, Scarborough has had to lobby for federal resources more than once. He fended off efforts to close or consolidate some of the military bases in the district, which form the backbone of economy. He also has managed to keep alive an effort to build a new highway corridor to ease emergency evacuation.

The federal budget will allow no new funds for major highway projects. But hurricane Opal, which turned all six counties into federal disaster areas at the cost of $1 billion in federal aid, underscored the region's need for better evacuation routes. Thus Scarborough is building a coalition of public and private funding sources to keep the $500 million proposal alive.

The freshman has had his nose swatted a few times. For a few years now, the Navy has been engaged in a land-swap deal that would open 135 acres of pristine waterfront to private development. Scarborough inherited the issue from his predecessor, but has appeared to vacillate between the various interests, much to the consternation of a local grass-roots preservation movement that feels slighted.

Still, most people interviewed say their congressman is battling in good faith to keep his promises.

With a whistle dangling around his neck, Mr. Hunsucker looks more like a coach than a principal. ''I'm not saying 'Bring Bring Bring,' '' he says of his expectations for Scarborough. ''I'm happy to see Newt and the boys go after the sacred cows.''

As he talks about Washington, he suddenly gets a craving for sassafras tea, and tells his visitor to follow him. A mile down the road he stops by the side of a cotton field, jumps out of his truck, and grabs a shovel. He digs up a root, scrapes it with his pocket knife, and reveals a sweet, sarsaparilla smell.

''Take that home and boil it,'' he says, climbing into his truck. ''I bet you're glad you woke up this morning.''

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