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Norwich - State Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, newly tanned and muscled and ready to battle Democrat Joe Courtney for the 2nd Congressional District seat, returned home last week after 2½ months of military training in South Carolina.
"It feels good to be back," the 35-year-old Army National Guardsman said.
Coutu's leave of absence - Feb. 5 to April 24 - allowed him to complete a required branch officer leadership course at Fort Jackson, S.C. He had until November to finish the training or risk losing his position in the military.
In his time away, Coutu missed the bulk of this year's General Assembly session and a crucial period to build support for his congressional run before the May 18 GOP state convention, where he hopes to win the party's endorsement ahead of fellow Republican Daria Novak of Madison.
This is an all-or-nothing race for Coutu, as he is not seeking re-election to the state legislature.
He kept his candidacy alive through a team of surrogates: campaign manager Chris Covucci and a group of about 10 volunteers who knocked on doors and visited close to 50 Republican Town Committee meetings throughout the district to pitch their candidate.
Coutu left them a detailed game plan and a list of his positions on a variety of issues. He said he kept in contact with his state legislature aide while away but avoided campaign-related phone calls or emails.
Jim Anderson, the campaign's director of field operations, recalled how he and other volunteers fanned out to the town committees, spreading the message of Coutu as "the citizen soldier" with a demonstrated record of standing by his principles.
"For a candidate to take three months off in the middle of a campaign takes a lot of hubris, stupidity, or a real dedication to country," said Anderson, a Niantic resident. "Courtney is going to be tough to beat, but we're going to be the home team, and we'll be dug in."
During a typical day at Fort Jackson, Coutu was out of bed by 5 a.m. and soon standing in formation for the morning run and physical training. War games often filled the afternoon. In one scenario, Coutu manned the gun mount on a Humvee and fired 500 rounds of blanks at insurgents during a simulated ambush.
"As a young officer, there's a good chance you'd be leading a convoy, and you have to know how to react," said Coutu, who is attached to the Groton-based 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group.
Coutu ended up making the commandant's list and received a physical fitness ribbon for scoring in the 90th percentile for running, push-ups and sit-ups. He arrived home to Connecticut 13 pounds heavier than when he left. He attributes the gain to strenuous exercise, not Army food.
Coutu now needs to hustle to close his fundraising gap with Courtney.
The most recent congressional campaign filings show the incumbent with a strong financial edge: $920,000 in contributions as of March 31, compared to the Coutu's $128,737.
Coutu concedes that his time away hurt his fundraising. But he hopes to reach a goal of equaling at least one-third of Courtney's war chest so he can better compete.
"It's going to be a lean and mean campaign," he said.
Dozens of Coutu supporters came out Friday night for a "Welcome Back" event at his campaign headquarters in Norwich. There were large signs and balloons festooned around the building and tables of pizza and Big Y brand soda.
Visitors included Alfred Mayo, a former black New London firefighter recruit who has pending civil rights complaints against the city and the state fire academy alleging that he was a victim of racial discrimination.
"He was the firefighter in New London who really got ripped off, by all means," said Coutu, who served with Mayo in the Taftville Volunteer Fire Department.
Coutu opened his remarks by thanking the volunteers who campaigned on his behalf.
"Without them, I would have had to step aside my run for Congress," he said before the packed room. "Because of them, we're going full-steam ahead."
The rest of his speech was all about November.
"We believe that we can make this a close race with about a month out," Coutu said. "The final push will be that people want to elect a citizen leader, not a lifelong politician, and that's going to be the difference in this election."