INDIANA - The crowd at the Kovalchick Complex quickly abandoned a "hold your applause" request Thursday, noisily approving as the three Republican candidates for the 9th congressional district worked to demonstrate their conservatism.
At the evening forum - the first in this year's primary race - Rep. Bill Shuster, Travis Schooley and Art Halvorson occasionally sniped at one another as each professed his love for the Second Amendment, skepticism of big government and hatred of Obamacare.
Schooley, a farm owner and entrepreneur from Franklin County, might have summed up all three candidates' points when he said: "I'm the most constitutionally conservative man on this stage."
Sponsored by the Indiana Armstrong Patriots, the event was meant to offer each candidate a chance to introduce his stances to a constituency that hadn't yet seen all three in the same place. But many of the 200 there seemed to have already made up their minds, from young campaign workers in Shuster T-shirts to groups who clapped loudly each time Halvorson attacked the "pathetic" Republican congressional leadership.
Defending his seat after 13 years in office, Shuster pointed to his record Thursday while blaming President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic leaders for any lack of progress in recent years.
He cited his dozens of votes against the Affordable Care Act - an effort likely doomed to failure as long as Republicans control only one house of Congress - and urged congressional action to punish Internal Revenue Service leaders connected to perceived anti-tea party scrutiny.
"I'm tired of hearing about what we need to do," Halvorson answered. "We have a do-nothing Congress led by our own party, put in place by the tea party."
While the three broadly agreed on many core Republican issues, Halvorson and Schooley showed little love for House Republican leaders: Both unflinchingly said they would vote to oust Speaker John Boehner.
Shuster, as head of the powerful House Transportation Committee, was cast as an establishment figure at Boehner's side by Halvorson and Schooley, who pushed for changes beyond what even House Republicans have proposed.
Halvorson expressed support for eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency; Schooley pined for the days when children learned in one-room schoolhouses. Both accused federal transportation authorities, seemingly including Shuster, of wasting billions in "pet projects."
Schooley included at least one reference to Shuster's father, longtime congressman Bud Shuster, including him among those responsible for overseas free-trade deals.
For his part, Shuster held up his conservative endorsements while seemingly acknowledging that he can't please party members on every issue.
"If you're with me 80 percent of the time, you're my friend, not my enemy," he said, paraphrasing Ronald Reagan as audience members and campaign staff filmed with camcorders and cellphones.
In his closing remarks, Halvorson summed up the opposing argument.
"Staying in for 14 years and wanting to do more means I don't think you're working hard enough," he said.