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"Thank you for being here," Aiken says, calmly swiveling in the confines to shake every hand."Thank you for running," the donors answer, their faces flushing, sweating more now. When he does give a brief speech an hour later under the vaulted ceiling of the formal living room, he outlines his thoughts on education, veterans' benefits, fracking, party divisiveness. Why don't our political leaders put forth their best ideas? If you brought your lunch to school, take a step forward.' It is chilling to watch it happen." Aiken takes a deep breath. We are fighting with everything we have." Aiken shakes his head apologetically, straightens his posture a notch. But if I get elected, I'll sing all you want."The crowd laughs, but it is clear they are disappointed.Aiken, thirty-five, adopts a modulated voice of nonthreatening enthusiasm, a technique he likely honed back in his camp-counselor days. The crowd listens intently, with palpable gratitude."If you own a restaurant and there is another restaurant across the street, you don't burn it down. All they do nowadays is try to win by making the other side lose." He concludes with a story about witnessing a Privilege Walk, a psychology exercise in which a group of people line up in the middle of a room, then step forward or backward on the basis of a series of questions."And they say, 'If you are a man, take a step forward. "The reason I'm running is because I want everybody to have the same shot. A white-haired man in a dress shirt and fitted pants pushes toward the exit, mumbling to a friend about twelve-term North Carolina congressman Bill Hefner: "Now, Bill, he'd close his events with a gospel number.It was this very dissonance that compelled Simon Cowell to advance Aiken past his audition on in 2003, this same provocative contrast that turned Aiken into the pop scene's most unlikely multiplatinum, perimenopausal panty dropper, seducing a legion of "Claymates" so loyal they stayed true to him even when he placed second in the finale, even when he came out publicly in 2008, and even now, when he is forsaking his God-given gift as the second coming of Steve Perry to run for Congress in North Carolina's Second District, a campaign fraught with an equal amount of improbability as his pop stardom, if not, it seems, singing. "I recognize there is a little bit of preposterousness to me running for office," Aiken says as we drive away from the fundraiser and past the lantern-lit Kinkadeian houses of Southern Pines, one of the more conservative hamlets in an already absurdly gerrymandered district. But I need them to take me seriously." (A struggle his campaign team dubbed WTF mountain.) "It's still a laugh line: 'Clay Aiken running for Congress? ' But when I'm done here, the people of North Carolina will know I'm serious.That this is real."Aiken has been the butt of the joke since grade school, where other kids tormented him "like it was their job." He was poor, raised by a single mom, wore glasses and cheap, clunky tennis shoes, had freckles, walked with his toes pointed east and west, was redheaded and clumsy and effeminate.His younger brother is a former Marine; his cousin owns a local shooting range.Aiken knows his "ain't a swing district by any stretch," and his odds, on the outside, appear needle thin. His family has lived in North Carolina for eight generations, as has Aiken for most of his life.So he decided, "You don't have to like me, you don't have to vote for me, but you will know who I am."He's playing by the same rules now, the unanticipated paradox being that in politics, he feels more himself than ever.

After it did, Aiken suffered from panic attacks and acute anxiety, often hiding from the crowds of thousands amassed to see him or grabbing his mother's hand, which she recalls back then was "always clammy."Part of his unease came from his being in the closet, as much to himself as anyone else."There was no man I admired more than Terry Sanford," Aiken recalls, his enunciation crisp and deliberate, as if to mirror his respect for the North Carolina politician who built the community-college system and founded the first U. In eighth grade, Aiken interviewed him for a school paper."I didn't know what my deal was yet, but I knew I was different.But when Renee said she 'needed' her paycheck during the government shutdown? " (While more savvy members of Congress donated their earnings when almost a million federal employees were involuntarily furloughed in 2013, Ellmers took a different route.)When Aiken discovered that Ellmers last won by 14 points after outspending her opponent 14 to 1 in a district where Republicans hold a 10-point advantage and where Obama lost by 16 points, he saw an opportunity.As soon as he announced his official candidacy, team Ellmers warned voters that Aiken was "a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford." Aiken laughs at the tactic.And even if he were, there are myriad amusements at his disposal that do not involve walking into the belly of the Tea Party beast, pulling up a chair, and inviting unfettered ridicule and humiliation. Aiken fell into his music career much like the supermodel scouted at the mall.