It started as a simple question during an online chat with Marshall Adame, a Democrat and retired Marine running for Congress in North Carolina's 3rd Congressional District.
"We take great pride in being a military-friendly state," wrote a supporter. "Should that pride extend to being a mercenary-friendly state, too?"
Adame, a diplomat who spent three years in Iraq, responded that the U.S. military should have no place for private armies. "They are guns for hire," he wrote, "no more, no less."
The largest private employer and taxpayer in Camden County, on the 3rd District's northern end, is Blackwater - a company that's been at the center of the controversy over private contracting in Iraq. It employs about 500 people at its headquarters and training facility in Moyock.
Candidates usually avoid taking on big businesses in their home state - it could cost them campaign contributions as well as the votes of those companies' employees.
But this year, North Carolina Democrats have targeted Blackwater as a symbol of what's wrong in Iraq.
After Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians at a busy Baghdad intersection in September, U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, introduced legislation requiring more oversight of contractors. The deaths remain under investigation.
Jim Neal, an investment banker seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, raised the issue in a campaign video. A supporter asked Neal whether he favored "outsourcing warfare to private mercenary armies."
Neal responded, "Hell, no."
Andy Taylor, chair of the political science department at North Carolina State University, said members of congress generally protect local business interests.
But Blackwater might not be seen as having a large economic impact on the region and state, he said. Instead, it has become a symbol of broader discontent about the war. "Blackwater is symptomatic of the Bush policies in Iraq," Taylor said. "It makes it, obviously, a good target."
Company founder and president Erik Prince also has offered no favors to Democrats.
The former Navy SEAL is a long-standing supporter of conservative campaigns. Prince has donated personally at least $113,000 to Republican candidates and causes since 1995, according to federal election data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Locally, Prince has donated money to Republican representatives Thelma Drake of Virginia Beach ($4,200) and to Adame's opponent, seven-term incumbent Walter Jones ($1,750).
Federal records show no Democratic candidates have received contributions under Prince's name.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell said the company is uncomfortable in the political spotlight but stands by its record. Tyrrell added that the donations were made by Prince as an individual and that the company, which does not have a political action committee, is apolitical.
So far, GOP leaders in North Carolina have not rushed to defend the company. A Dole spokeswoman said the government needs to exercise more control over private contractors. The North Carolina senator also advocates a larger active-duty Army and Marine Corps.
Jones' staff did not return several calls seeking comment.
Neal, who is running in the Democratic primary against state Sen. Kay Hagan, said money spent on Blackwater guards would be better used to expand the military and improve GI pay and benefits. "Blackwater," he said, "is an economic black hole."
Adame said his experience during 39 months in Iraq soured him on private security details. A 22-year Marine Corps veteran who still lives near Camp Lejeune, Adame served as director of the major airport in Iraq's southern Basrah province.
He later worked for the State Department, advising Iraqi reconstruction teams throughout the country. Adame was often guarded by private contractors, including Blackwater, and found too many were unskilled and lacked discipline, he said.
In early 2005, private guards from another company fired on the Kurdish Iraqi troops guarding him, Adame said. No one was injured.
Tyrrell defended Blackwater's work, saying its guards have protected all of their clients from serious injury and death.
The company founders, former military veterans and law enforcement officers, shun the attention, she said. "We are definitely paying a price for letting others tell our story," she said.
Sometimes, those frustrations become public.
Bill Mathews, Blackwater's executive vice president and a former SEAL, spotted Adame's criticism on a North Carolina Democratic Web site and e-mailed company employees.
"There is a man named Marshall Adame who is running for Congress in our district," Mathews wrote in January. "He just put a quote online which says he wants this company and all of us to cease to exist.
"Do you like your jobs? Are you sick and tired of the slanderous bullshit going on in D.C.?"
He posted Adame's e-mail and home address and urged employees, their friends and families to contact the candidate. "Let's run this goof out of Dodge," he wrote.
Adame received scores of angry e-mails - some polite, others coarse.
Tyrrell said Mathews regrets sending the e-mail. He fired off the message in a passionate defense of the company, she said.
"It shouldn't have happened," she said. But for most employees, "it's not enjoyable to hear people trashing the company."
Adame brushed off the attack. "I have never met a military man in Iraq who approved of the presence of these private contractors," he said.
In early February, he was warmly received by a group of Democrat party regulars, just 20 miles from Blackwater's front gate.
"Privatizing our military is a huge mistake," Adame said. "It resonates with the average American, Democrat or Republican."
Louis Hansen, (757) 446-2322, firstname.lastname@example.org