This isn't where U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler wanted to be.
Two years ago, the 51-year old Republican capitalized on the tea party wave then sweeping the country and easily upended 34-year House veteran Ike Skelton in Missouri's huge 4th Congressional District.
She ran on familiar themes: Smaller government, lower taxes and a strong military, always a popular issue in a district that's home to Fort Leonard Wood and Whiteman AFB.
"I've told people all along that this district has been fed up and fired up and ready to stand up, and we did," Hartzler told cheering supporters when the campaign ended two years ago.
But in her first re-election effort in 2012, Hartzler faces unanticipated headwinds.
Her district is now less Republican -- for the first time it includes Boone County, usually more blue than red. Freshmen are typically more vulnerable than any other members of the House. And the approval ratings for Congress are at historic lows.
Now Hartzler must confront a tough, major-party challenger in Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley, a Democrat.
With only a month until the Nov. 6 election, both candidates are criss-crossing the district, shaking hands, walking in parades, chatting at the cafes. For the most part, the campaign has been cordial but tense -- Hartzler is still the favorite, but she's generally considered the Missouri incumbent facing the hardest race this year.
Yet she isn't publicly worried.
"We've got a large group of grass-roots supporters putting up signs and walking with us in parades and getting the word out," she said.
But Hensley, 53, is on the 4th District trail as well. In mid-September, she met with dozens of supporters and friends at a restaurant in downtown Belton, criticizing her opponent's proposals for Social Security and Medicare.
"This is a real retail race," Hensley said. "People have to get a chance to see you."
Hartzler hasn't exactly been a boat-rocker in the House.
She has voted with the GOP 95 percent of the time, according to an analysis by the watchdog website Open Congress. She took seats on the House Agriculture and Armed Services Committees -- a sign the House GOP leadership is protecting her seat. She voted repeatedly to repeal what she calls Obamacare, and supported Republican budget alternatives.
Hartzler said that's the record she's taking to voters. "People want us to rein in this runaway spending," she said. "They're concerned about the debt and jobs and the economy."
But congressional failure to pass a new farm bill rankles some constituents, and possible defense spending cuts next year (which Hartzler bitterly opposes) also are a concern. The fiscal conservative is still answering questions about the $820,000 that Hartzler Farms Inc. has received in federal farm subsidies since 1995, including $23,391 accepted since she was elected.
Hensley has made an issue of those payments, accusing Hartzler of hypocrisy for wanting to cut food stamps more than farm subsidies. But mindful of the socially conservative nature of the 4th District -- which Hartzler used to her advantage in 2010 -- Hensley has trained most of her attacks on her opponent's other economic positions.
"I'm not asked about the single issues ... like abortion or same-sex marriage or guns," she said. "I'm asked about Medicare and Social Security."
The five-year federal farm bill expired at the end of the September, an embarrassing failure for members of Congress but a particular problem for lawmakers from rural districts such as Hartzler's.
The Republican voted for the House version of the farm bill in committee, but it has never come to the floor -- largely because other Republicans argued it spends too much on food stamps.
"There just isn't the votes," Hartzler conceded.
Hensley said she would have voted for the Senate version of the farm bill, which passed. In general, the Senate bill cuts less in food stamps than the House version, but reduces taxpayer spending on farm subsidies.
Hensley and Hartzler agree on the need to re-examine the controversial "sequester," now slated to start in January. The sequester -- automatic reductions in federal spending -- would cut roughly $50 billion from defense spending next year, which Hartzler has repeatedly argued could devastate the two military posts in the district.
Hensley has called for a balanced approach to ending the sequester -- including consideration of higher taxes on incomes above $1 million a year, something Hartzler has rejected. She would extend all the expiring tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush. And Hensley maintains that the sequester's defense cuts would not affect Fort Leonard Wood or Whiteman AFB.
"We spend too much on the military," Hensley said.
Hartzler voted against the final version of the Budget Control Act, the law that established the sequester, in a rare show of independence from Republican leadership in the House.
Echoing the national debate over entitlement programs for the elderly, the two candidates also differ on reforms for Medicare. Hartzler has supported budgets that offer premium support -- what Democrats call vouchers -- for younger workers to eventually purchase private coverage instead of rely on Medicare.
"You're going to have private companies wanting that Medicare business, and that drives down costs," Hartzler said. But she could not explain exactly how that would happen, other than reforming malpractice laws and more preventative care.
She promised again to support repeal of the Affordable Care Act. She said she doesn't believe a report from the Congressional Budget Office that repealing the act would add to the deficit.
Hensley rejects the idea of premium support.
"It is not a crisis that you have to turn it into a voucher system," she said.
Asked if she would support higher Medicare taxes, as some have proposed, Hensley said she wants to be careful with tax increases but would look at the idea.
Four years ago, the 4th District voted overwhelmingly for Sen. John McCain over then-Sen. Barack Obama, reflecting and reinforcing the unmistakable rise of Republicans in Missouri.
But the district has changed since 2010. Take a Missouri map, stick a pin near Joplin, then stretch a string to Audrain County, just 120 miles northwest of St. Louis. That's the new 4th District.
And it now includes Boone County -- essentially Columbia. Boone County voters are expected to cast more than 20 percent of all the votes in the district this year.
That could help Hensley, political operatives from both parties believe, because the district is more Democrat than it was when Hartzler beat Skelton.
"It's Democrat-biased," said Bruce Cornett, chairman of the Boone County Republican party, although he noted Republicans are usually competitive in federal races.
Peg Miller with the Boone County Democratic Party agreed that, "we lean Democrat."
The Hensley and Hartzler campaigns understand the changed contours of the district and that they are both relatively unknown to its voters. Hensley in particular faces a name-recognition problem the farther she travels from her Cass County base.
Reporters in rural parts of the district and in Columbia have written about the campaign, but radio and TV ads are only now popping up on screens and blaring from dashboards across the district.
Hartzler had raised more than $1 million for her campaign through mid-July, Federal Election Commission records show, about twice as much as Hensley. The Democrat also is getting less-than-expected help from outside independent groups, although her campaign expects that to change in the closing weeks.
Hensley also has accepted donations from lawyers who practice in Cass County, where she is the prosecutor, but campaign manager Mark Nevins denied any potential conflicts of interest.
"You can look at her track record and see that campaign support has no bearing on the job she does," Nevins said. "Some of the folks that have lost to her in court have supported her campaign."
Hensley has purchased a small amount of TV time in the Kansas City market, records show. Hartzler has not. Kansas City television reaches only a fraction of the 4th District, and includes Kansas voters -- making ad buys in Kansas City fairly inefficient for both candidates.
So Hensley has pushed Hartzler to debate. But the two candidates have yet to share a stage or microphone.
"I think voters deserve it," Hensley said in a statement provided by the campaign.
Hartzler hasn't budged, although she blames the lack of debates on logistics. "We'll just have to see what opportunities are available," she said.
In the middle of a tough re-election challenge, Hartzler has faced an unexpected issue -- the controversy swirling around GOP Senate nominee U.S. Rep. Todd Akin. Hartzler, like many Republicans, called for Akin to leave the race after his controversial comments on "legitimate" rape, although she waited several days before calling them ill-advised.
"The voters are looking at each individual race," she said, discounting the impact the Akin story will have in the district.
But Hartzler also shares Akin's views that abortion should be prohibited, even in cases of rape and incest.
"I believe that all life is precious and deserves to live, no matter how it was conceived," Hartzler told the Columbia Daily Tribune in August.
Ultimately, Hartzler and Hensley may agree on this: Voters will decide this race, which includes Libertarian nominee Thomas Holbrook and Constitution party candidate Greg Cowan, on a personal as well as political basis.
"This is a job interview. And I'm more qualified than she is," Hensley said. "I don't think she should be there."
Hartzler, of course, sharply disagreed.
"I still think (voters) want somebody who's one of them, who's had experience as a farmer and a small business owner and a teacher."