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Battle-tested underdog is on a mission; Challenging establishment, Bellavia sees war heroism as symbol of deep-seated beliefs

As David Bellavia campaigned at Charlie's Diner in East Aurora a few days ago, Don King looked up from his lunch plate and immediately pledged his support to the Republican congressional candidate.

He later told a reporter he will vote for Bellavia for one reason and one reason alone.

"I always support a veteran," said King, 66, himself a vet. "That's important to me, because it shows he believes in the country and not necessarily individual ideas."

This is how Bellavia, an Army veteran who earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star in Iraq, is best known. A top-selling author who has sold the movie rights of his combat experiences to an Oscar-winning director, the Batavia resident is still most often identified as "Iraq War veteran David Bellavia."

Now, as he challenges former Erie County Executive Chris Collins for the GOP nomination to oppose incumbent Democrat Kathleen C. Hochul in the 27th Congressional District, Bellavia is trying to broaden his persona. He brings much more to his effort, he says, than a chestful of medals.

"I never said it was," he said about his war record as his main qualification for public office. "But all my service represents how serious I take my beliefs and my willingness to sacrifice."

Indeed, Bellavia frequently draws on his experience amid the horror of Fallujah. He refers often to losing friends in combat, and how the term "battle-hardened" takes on a new meaning for him.

And when it comes to his opponent, he does not back down from his latest fight -- even if Collins hardly ever acknowledges Bellavia's existence.

"Mr. Collins would not even be in this if he hadn't lost his last race," he said. "I just think aspirations should come second to service."

Bellavia has encountered his share of rough spots in his third try for the House. Various news reports exposed his delinquency in paying property and school taxes, that the Federal Election Commission questioned his campaign finance reports and that a foundation he championed to help the families of wounded soldiers accomplished few of its goals.

In addition, Collins' fundraising dwarfs Bellavia's, and most voters still don't know his name, while just about everyone recognizes the former county executive.

But the onetime Army staff sergeant has still managed to make an impression. While the Republican organizations in Erie and Niagara counties remained comfortably in the Collins orbit, several others in the sprawling eight-county district cast their lot with Bellavia.

"I think his military service record appealed to my committee members, as well as how he comes across as a small-town, average guy," said Gordon M. Brown, Wyoming County GOP chairman. "Collins is deemed to be of the country club set. That appealed much less to my members."

For sure, Bellavia is ready to emphasize all of that. He points out he can better appeal to a party not centered in Spaulding Lake, the ritzy Clarence neighborhood where Collins lives.

"We have Latinos in our party and people who belong to unions -- believe it or not," Bellavia said.

If Bellavia succeeds in his underdog effort to knock off Collins in the GOP primary next Tuesday, it may stem from that perception and his David-versus-Goliath approach.

"The party machine has tried to bully its way through this," he said. "People are sick and tired of that Erie County machine. I'm trying to look these people in the eyes and say: 'You know what? All that stuff is over now.' "

At 36, Bellavia has tried to portray his effort as "generational," a word he often employs to emphasize the need to reform Medicare and Social Security. Like Collins, he proposes that nobody nearing retirement age be denied those benefits.

But he also says Washington should address how to pay for programs that at some point will pay out more than they take in. And while Republican Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin has acknowledged that her failure to better explain such concerns contributed to her loss to Hochul in the 2011 special lection, Bellavia says the idea must be better articulated.

"Our biggest problem as a party is not the message, but our messenger," he said. "I don't think Chris Collins' message is bad, but the messenger is bad. John McCain's ideals weren't bad; the candidate was bad."

Bellavia also rejects the notion that Collins' corporate career and even his years as county executive qualify him for Congress.

"Fall in step, fall in line; that's what executives [demand]," he said. "It's not what legislators do."

He said the choice comes down to "hubris, power, wealth and careerism" versus the "morality of obligation and public service."

"We should consider why we do this and realize it's about putting country first," he said.

At the General Welding & Fabricating Co. in Elma, Bellavia was ruminating about the state of American industry with Mark Andol, who also owns the nearby Made in America Store and is an outspoken proponent of restoring U.S. leadership in manufacturing.

Both lament the lack of skilled workers for places such as Andol's metal shop and the need for high schools and community colleges to address the problem. "Your passion is infectious," Bellavia tells him. "You are they guy, because no one else is talking like that. And I'm sick and tired of the Democratic Party having the education issue all to themselves."

The two also talked of problems posed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and similar "interference" from state and federal governments. "These are real things," Andol tells Bellavia.

Bellavia says he identifies with small-business owners such as Andol and jumps into other topics that land him squarely in the category of "conservative Republican." Though his positions do not radically differ from those espoused by Collins, he emphasizes unwavering support for gun rights, opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and the need to restrain spending.

Nevertheless, Bellavia is eager to draw distinctions. He has relentlessly attacked Collins for refusing his invitation to numerous debates. "I don't want this to be about his disposition or about the fact he does not play well with others," he said. "I'm just asking the opportunity to debate the issues."

While multimillionaire Collins has dropped $250,000 of his own money into the primary campaign, Bellavia has pledged $45,000 of his personal funds. Along with some contributions he has received from supporters, he will send at least one mailing to GOP voters in the last days of the campaign.

He may be the underdog but is counting on his side's enthusiasm to gin up turnout.

"I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity or a better climate [for a campaign]," he said. "It's an opportunity to show our differences in everything."