LAWRENCEVILLE — On the wall of the Rev. Jody Hice's campaign office hangs a painting of Jesus kneeling in prayer, with one healing hand touching the crack in the Liberty Bell.
It's an image that seems to sum up the years the Southern Baptist preacher has spent challenging the legal barriers separating church and state. Hice has fought the ACLU over Ten Commandments displays in courthouses and dared the IRS to come after his church in 2008 by endorsing Republican presidential candidate John McCain in a Sunday sermon.
Now Hice, 50, has a shot at being elected to the same government he rails against on his daily Christian talk-radio show as a candidate for Congress in the Atlanta area.
He finished second in Georgia's July 20 primary, when he faced seven other Republicans competing for a chance to succeed retiring GOP Rep. John Linder. As the runner-up, he advances to a Tuesday runoff against front-runner Rob Woodall, Linder's former chief of staff.
Hice has been turning heads on metro Atlanta's congested freeways with campaign billboards that bash President Barack Obama with a Soviet hammer-and-sickle.
"He kind of makes waves," said Yvonne Franklin, a retired real-estate agent and Hice supporter. "He's very mild mannered. He talks softly, but he carries that stick."
The winner of the Hice-Woodall rematch will be favored in November to become Georgia's next congressman from the Republican-leaning 7th District. The winner will face Democrat Doug Heckman in November.
While Hice talks social issues on his radio program, he's focused his campaign on fiscal issues and challenging big government. He's on board with scrapping the federal income tax with a national sales tax — the so-called Fair Tax long championed by Linder, and the most prominent issue in the race.
"I am a social conservative, obviously, but there is a whole lot more in this campaign than those issues," Hice said in an interview. "This is not a crusade for me."
Still, Hice is trying to capitalize on voters' anger with Washington and position himself as an outsider determined to shake up Capitol Hill.
He frequently uses the words "socialist" and "anti-free market" to describe Obama's economic policies, and drives the message home in five billboards across the district that ask: "Had Enough Of Obama's Change?" — but substituting the letter "C'' with the hammer-and-sickle symbol that once adorned the Soviet Union's flag.
John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said Hice's message seems tailored to court tea party activists who are more focused on taxes and the economy than social issues that typically drive clergymen into politics.
"A lot of ministers who run in primaries seem to be single-issue candidates," Green said. "They're upset about abortion or the Ten Commandments. And the reason they don't succeed is they don't seem concerned with a broader agenda."
Clay Cox, the Republican who finished third in the primary, says the Obama billboards were an effective gimmick. The former state legislator had been the presumed front-runner whose $362,000 bank account more than tripled his nearest competitor.
"I'm knocking on doors two days before the election and I'm told by someone who's voted for me in the past that he's going to vote for Jody, because he put that on his billboard," Cox said.
Woodall, 40, has been endorsed by his old boss, Linder, who's extremely popular among area conservatives. Another Woodall backer is Atlanta conservative firebrand Neal Boortz, whose radio show has a huge audience.
Hice says Woodall is an insider too mired in Washington's machinations. Woodall insists his experience makes him the best candidate to lead the Fair Tax charge.
"Will Jody get to Washington and be a Fair Tax supporter? Absolutely," Woodall said. "But he can't sit down and lead the Fair Tax on Day One."
Hice generally avoids social issues such as abortion and gay marriage while campaigning. Yet he's still in the culture war trenches on "The Jody Hice Show," a daily half-hour radio program airing on 400 U.S. stations via the Christian Satellite Network.
The pastor may have crossed a line when he used the show — which is produced and broadcast by tax-exempt Christian organizations — to give a brief update on his runoff campaign a week after the primary.
"August 10 is just around the corner and we really, really ask for your prayer as we come through these last several days," Hice told his listeners.
Let Freedom Ring Ministries, Hice's ministry that produces the show, and the Christian network that broadcasts it are both tax-exempt organizations — and therefore prohibited by law from endorsing political campaigns. Hice insists asking for prayers wasn't the same as asking for votes or campaign donations.
IRS spokesman Dean Patterson wouldn't say if Hice is being probed because the IRS is prohibited from discussing individual cases.
But Mark Owens, a Washington attorney who led the IRS exempt organizations division from 1990 to 2000, said Hice's July 27 broadcast crosses the line.
"He is clearly supporting his own candidacy," Owens said after listening to a recording of the show. "I don't think there's any way his words can be interpreted otherwise."
The pastor's political battles began in 2003, about five years after he became senior pastor of a church in Bethlehem, Ga. Under Hice, Bethlehem First Baptist Church grew from about 50 members to 1,300, but he recently left the church to focus on radio ministry and candidacy.
A church-state fight that began in Alabama spread to Hice's area in 2003, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to force Barrow County to remove a copy of the Ten Commandments from its courthouse.
Hice became one of the most outspoken supporters of keeping the display in his church's home county. He formed Ten Commandments Georgia, Inc., which raised $265,000 to pay the county's legal bills.
Barrow County lost the court case, but Hice's group helped push through a Georgia law allowing the commandments to be displayed in government buildings as long as other historic documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, are too.
"Jody understands that Christians are to be a part of changing the culture, not reflecting the culture," said the Rev. Mike Griffin, executive director of Ten Commandments Georgia. "He never set out to become an activist. Jody's one of the most humble guys you'd ever meet."