Opie's All Grown Up Now
Old enough. When Canady retired under a self-imposed four-term limit, Putnam jumped into the congressional race against Ford dealer Michael Stedem, a first-time candidate who claimed Putnam didn't have enough experience to run. MTV wanted to tag along with the 26-year-old on the campaign trail, but he'd have none of it. "I watched all that play out in 1996 with the Clinton-Dole race, when they kind of distilled down young people's views about whether the president wore boxers or briefs, and I felt that was insulting," he says. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert went down to Florida to stump for Putnam, and they hit it off. They stayed in touch during Putnam's first term in Congress and became increasingly close-so much so that Putnam now says he's part of Hastert's "farm team" of young members of Congress. "We're both from small towns. Background in agriculture," Putnam says. "He raised Angus cattle. I raise Hereford cattle and showed them as a 4-H'er, so we had some common experiences."
Those common experiences have proved tremendously helpful; Putnam has landed plum assignments on congressional panels like the Rules Committee and the Budget Committee-and built the relationships necessary to race up the leadership ladder. When indicted Rep. Tom DeLay stepped down earlier this year, Putnam jumped up to the No. 5 spot-chair of the House Republican Policy Committee-during the shake-up. He's been a reliably conservative Republican, with a 94 percent rating from the American Conservative Union over his three terms, and he gets kudos from Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform for his Reaganesque stances on taxes and spending. But Putnam isn't easily labeled. Until the last minute, he opposed a trade bill that the president strongly lobbied for in 2001 but that he felt would have hurt his district's agriculture businesses. He isn't in the influential 100-plus-member Republican Study Committee of fiscal conservatives, and he's not a member of the vocal immigration caucus led by Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo. "He's been very careful to keep his politics right of center but in the middle of our conference and to frankly not be associated with any of the groups," says Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee. "He is seen as having a foot in everyone's camp."
This fall, during the Mark Foley page scandal, Republicans praised Putnam for a smooth performance in debating Democrats' campaigner-in-chief Rahm Emanuel on ABC, something he'll probably have to get used to. Putnam's new post is largely a communications job that will put him in front of the cameras and microphones but also require him to be in the war room issuing "intellectual ammunition"-bullet points for members going to speak in Congress, on television talk shows, or with constituents, as well as more detailed policy papers. "He brings this kind of fresh face, kind of new face," says Rep. Ander Crenshaw, a Jacksonville Republican who served with Putnam in the Florida legislature and now in Congress. "He kind of represents the future." Putnam says he's planning to work "very tactically" on "highlighting the differences between the parties and working across the aisle on certain issues." He anticipates being able to work on budget questions with some of the more fiscally conservative Democrats who were elected this year.