A 51-year-old ex-NFL player, Clint Didier is running an underdog campaign as the tea-party alternative to Republican Dino Rossi. While his blunt, angry rhetoric has been a hit with some conservative activists, he's not viewed as much of a threat by either Rossi or incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

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ELTOPIA, Franklin County — It’s the middle of his U.S. Senate campaign, and Republican candidate Clint Didier is standing in an alfalfa field gripping a hammer.

He pounds loose a rusted drive shaft on a giant sprinkler tower and replaces the defective part so the irrigation line can resume rolling across the fields, spreading Columbia River water across the arid land.

Didier spends most days crisscrossing the state for an underdog campaign as a conservative, tea-party-backed alternative to Republican front-runner Dino Rossi. But his crops won’t wait for the Aug. 17 primary, so Didier paused last week for a couple days of farm work between political events. He rose early after getting home at 2 a.m. from a campaign rally in Vancouver.

“This is a hard way of life. It’s something that is very rewarding,” Didier said, pointing to hay he cut and baled. “All I want to do is make sure we preserve this country so my kids have the same shot at the American dream that I had.”

A 51-year-old ex-NFL player, Didier towers over his rivals on the campaign trail, standing 6-foot-5 in ostrich-skin cowboy boots as he warns in a booming baritone that the America of “rugged individualism, self-reliance and personal responsibility” is on the verge of vanishing — to be replaced by a “Marxist utopia” where everyone is dependent on the federal government.

Didier has lagged in polls and is not viewed as much of a threat by either Rossi or incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who have been busy attacking one another in anticipation of a November matchup.

While the front-runners field professional campaigns complete with out-of-state consultants and lobbyist-hosted D.C. fundraisers, Didier runs his race out of an extra farmhouse with friends and volunteers who have placed large Didier signs on seemingly every mile of state highway. His daughter Brandie does his schedule. He’s put 50,000 miles on his Ford F-350 pickup.

Didier’s blunt, angry rhetoric has been a hit with conservative activists at the core of the tea-party movement. He has won the endorsements of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. He drew boisterous cheers at the state Republican Party convention in June, with a speech that quoted George Washington, Charlton Heston and the movie “Braveheart.”

Didier says his hometown of Eltopia in Eastern Washington was once nicknamed “Hell To Pay” by railroad workers laboring in 117-degree heat. “When I get to D.C. there is gonna be hell to pay, and I’m taking the heat back with me,” he said at the state convention.

A slashing ‘game plan’

Calling the Constitution his “game plan,” Didier favors eliminating huge parts of the federal government, starting with the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. He’d phase out Social Security in favor of a system of tax-free individual retirement accounts. He wants to pull the military out of Afghanistan and Iraq and deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to halt an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.

Didier even talks about getting rid of the federal farm subsidies from which he and many of his neighbors have benefitted.

His farm has received nearly $273,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 1995, according to a database of USDA payments maintained by the Environmental Working Group.

After media reports about those subsidies, Didier said he’d no longer accept them, even swearing off disaster aid he’s eligible for this year because of spring rains that ruined the first cutting of alfalfa.

“It’s the kind of a move that we all better be willing to make for this country,” he said, pointing to the estimated $13 trillion national debt. “We’ve got to all realize this is unsustainable. We’ve got to quit taking this money.”

Apart from the USDA subsidies, Didier’s way of life wouldn’t be possible without the federal government’s creation of the Columbia Basin Project, the Depression-era irrigation system authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Irrigation canals fed by Grand Coulee Dam weave through Didier’s farm tracts, allowing him to grow green rows of alfalfa in an area that would otherwise be ruled by sagebrush, cheatgrass and rattlesnakes.

He acknowledges the federal government’s role, to a point. But he argues that since Columbia Basin farmers are assessed annual per-acre payments for the dam, they are actually subsidizing the cheap electricity the system sends to Western Washington.

Studies have shown the opposite is true. The irrigation network that benefits farmers like Didier has been mostly paid for by federal taxpayers and electricity ratepayers elsewhere. A 1995 paper co-authored by economists at Washington State University estimated that farmers were paying only 1.5 percent of the irrigation system’s cost.

Didier says he doesn’t support New Deal-type infrastructure programs now, opposing federal stimulus spending. Further, he says most of the social programs launched during the New Deal and later on were mistakes. “It’s turning us into a socialist country,” he said.

He doesn’t believe federal spending ended the Great Depression and says the private sector must be unleashed to end the current economic crisis.

People should take care of themselves, he said, instead of relying on government handouts.

“We’ve got to get rid of this ‘protecting the weak.’ If we keep the weak alive all the time it eats up the strong, and then our economy will never come back,” he said after a tea-party forum earlier this month in Bellingham.

That means businesses — including farms — should be allowed to fail in the free market and social programs for the poor should be slashed. He’d cut Medicaid, Medicare, welfare and food stamps, too.

“If you have children, you take care of them until they can take care of themselves. It shouldn’t be anyone else’s obligation except yours,” he said.

Didier says he learned his greatest lessons in life through adversity.

From football to farming

Growing up tall and skinny, he played tight end in football but wasn’t regarded as a top talent. After high school he played at a local community college for two years before transferring to Portland State University, where he recalls dropping every pass thrown to him during his first game.

“I got my head screwed on straight. I got back to where I believed in myself, and from there on I caught just about everything,” Didier said. “That’s the failure we’ve got to let happen.”

A 12th-round draft pick, he played for eight years in the NFL, winning two Super Bowl rings with the Washington Redskins. In 1986, his best year, he earned $330,000, including performance bonuses.

When his pro-football career ended in 1990, Didier returned home and bought a farm not far from his parents’ homestead. He’s added several other stretches since then and grows alfalfa, corn and wheat on about 1,000 acres of farmland that is worth at least $1 million, according to a financial disclosure filing.

It’s strictly a family operation. Didier works the land with his wife, three sons and daughter. He also runs an excavation business and has coached the local high-school football team, leading them to a state championship last year.

Didier says he doesn’t believe the polls showing him with little chance to get past the primary. He recently told one gathering he’d had a premonition that Murray would lose in the primary and he and Rossi would face off in November, according to a conservative blogger who wrote about the event.

But Rossi has clearly looked past Didier, avoiding tea-party forums while courting more moderate voters. For example, Rossi has said while he’s anti-abortion, he wouldn’t apply an abortion-litmus test to Supreme Court nominees.

Didier scoffs at that, saying he’d demand judicial nominees support life “cradle to grave.”

That has moved some conservatives to Didier’s camp, including ardent anti-abortion activists who have criticized Rossi for excusing abortion in cases of rape and incest.

“I think they’re looking for somebody who stands for something, and that’s Clint,” said Michelle McIntyre, an Everett anti-abortion activist. “He doesn’t back down from his principles at all.”

Didier said his goal is to be a “citizen-statesman” not a career politician.

“I’m going to serve two terms max,” he said at the Bellingham tea-party forum. “Then I’m going back to the farm just where my dad died, and that’s where I’m gonna die. And I hope we’ll still be free.”

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com