GRAHAM, North Carolina — Football helmets of Alamance County's high schools are perched on shelves behind the Graham Soda Shop counter, paying tribute to the community's favorite teams. They're also a reminder of what area voters have come to expect of U.S. Rep. Howard Coble the past 29 years.
That's because it's long been routine for the Greensboro Republican to ask people he meets in the 6th Congressional District where they attended high school. Then he recites the school's mascot — a signal he knows well the Triad region where he's lived for most of his life.
Supporters and detractors of his policies also call him a hard worker who has religiously showed up at local events and handled citizen requests.
"Constituents demand accessibility, and I think justifiably so," the 82-year-old Coble said earlier this month in announcing he'll retire when his 15th term expires at the end of next year.
It's with this backdrop that at least five candidates are running for the seat held by the longest-serving Republican U.S. House member in North Carolina history. At least two other Republicans are weighing entry into the May primary for the seat covering all or parts of 10 north-central counties.
"That's one of the great things about Howard — he can speak with anybody and talk with anybody because he's got an automatic 'in' with them," Republican Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr. said, fresh from delivering a stump speech at the soda shop last week as he kicked off his campaign to succeed Coble.
The other four announced candidates got in before Coble's made public his plans. Coble has been in and out of the hospital the last few years and faced several primary opponents in 2010 and 2012 — some saying he was too moderate and others, too old. The 2014 candidates say they want to emulate Coble on accessibility and customer service.
"He's always responded quickly and conscientiously to friend and foe alike," said GOP primary hopeful Don Webb of High Point, a financial adviser who became a candidate in June.
The 6th District, while made more Democratic than Republican in terms of voter registration in the 2011 redistricting, still leans toward the GOP column, according to federal election results and experts.
"The action will be in the primary," University of North Carolina at Greensboro political science professor David Holian said. "It's a safe Republican seat, especially given that we're going into the ... sixth year of a Democratic (presidential) administration."
Berger, the son of state Senate leader Phil Berger and head of the state district attorney association, would appear to have an early advantage with father-and-son name recognition. But he'll need to raise money to get his message out in a district where many have never been asked to vote for either family member.
Redistricting pulled out several counties south of Greensboro and added Rockingham County and others near the Virginia border and in parts of the Triangle. Mindful of the district's change, Berger Jr. said he previously gave Coble a book with the nicknames of the new high schools in his new 6th District to memorize.
Democrats argue Berger's father helped draw the map the legislature approved to put his son in the district. The Senate leader has said that's not so.
Webb, a former High Point Republican Party chairman and current Piedmont Triad International Airport Authority board member, said the race will hinge on whom voters trust. As Berger talked last week about his tough-on-crime efforts as a prosecutor, Webb said Congress needs more business leaders and fewer lawyers.
Two ministers also are in the race — the Rev. Mark Walker, a music minister at a large Baptist church in Greensboro and the Rev. Dan Collison, pastor of a Baptist church in Jamestown.
Collison, who came to North Carolina 18 months ago after several years as a Southern Baptist missionary in Canada, said his time there reinforced to him the problems associated with government health care programs, such as the U.S. health care overhaul.
Walker entered the race in March. He said he was passionate about representing the public in Congress no matter who was running. He may the best organized Republican yet, with campaign offices and scores of committed campaigners, while his committee has raised more than $93,000 through Sept. 30, according to federal campaign filings.
Laura Fjeld of Orange County, the only announced Democrat, raised $130,000 through Sept. 30 and dismisses the notion the seat will stay Republican. She said people want members of Congress to work across the aisle to get things done, not GOP ideologues who obstruct the country's business.
"I'm going to win because I'm going to appeal to the independent and unaffiliated voters," said Fjeld, a former University of North Carolina system attorney from Orange County.
Whatever the result in November 2014, the next 6th District representative will have large shoes to fill.
"A freshman legislator is going to have to gain a lot of ground to get the influence and status of what Howard had," said A.J. Daoud, the Republican Party's chairman for Coble's 6th Congressional District.