WASHINGTON - As he cast a vote against raising the debt ceiling in June, U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack led 11-year-old Claire Gunsbury of Nisswa, Minn., onto the floor of the House. Leaving the U.S. Capitol with Claire and her mother, Cravaack told the family he had taken the vote to protect Claire's future.

In reality, the vote on a debt limit increase was little more than a political statement, its chances of becoming law essentially zero.

But that vote, like so many others that have come to define Washington this year, was taken to send a message, not pass a law. With a Republican House and Democratic Senate, the 112th Congress has mostly been a "do-nothing Congress," making it difficult for freshmen like Cravaack to rack up legislative accomplishments.

Cravaack, 52, shocked the political world when he upset U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2010. Now he's the incumbent who has to run on his record in Congress -- a record already under fire from Democrats concerning Medicare and the debt limit.

Cravaack's decision to move his family to New Hampshire so his kids would be closer to their mother's job makes his re-election more complicated in what was already a difficult race. The Minnesota Republican criticized Oberstar for being out of touch with the Eighth District in 2010, and he said before the GOP endorsing convention that he was "shocked" Oberstar lived in Potomac, Md.

"He will have to spend a lot of time over the next few months explaining how this will work, and whether this will impact the extent to which he can represent the folks in Minnesota," said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

'Conservative independent'

Cravaack defends his family's move -- he'll maintain his congressional schedule in the Eighth District, he says -- and his record on the debt ceiling and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan. He argues that Republicans in the House are trying to legislate and fix the country's fiscal woes.

"If I tell people the truth and don't get re-elected, that's OK," Cravaack said in an interview. "To do nothing would be a dereliction of duty."

A retired Navy and airline pilot who came to Washington as a political novice, Cravaack expresses little regret over his first six months in the House. His record doesn't stand out in the 87-member freshman class, but Cravaack hasn't tried to make much noise. While he has spoken up a few times -- and faced criticism for it -- Cravaack has generally stayed under the radar, avoiding the cable TV spotlight. He's focused his attention on committee work and proposed three bills that haven't received a vote. Three of his amendments passed the House, but not the Senate.

An analysis of his voting record shows he's voted most often with U.S. Rep. John Kline and least often with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann among Minnesota Republicans.

Cravaack labels himself a conservative independent. He says he's not a Tea Party member and he hasn't joined the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House policy arm, but he signed Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge and voted against the government shutdown deal brokered by House Speaker John Boehner.

Cravaack's critics say his votes ignore the Eighth District's Democratic-leaning constituents. "He's taken a lot of votes that I think are going to come back to haunt him, especially his support of the Ryan plan," said Ken Martin, Minnesota DFL chair.

A 'giant killer'

In the Navy, Cravaack earned the nickname "Crash" after his car wound up in an officer's living room when the brakes failed. It's still used by some of his friends today.

In Congress, he's earned a new nickname. When Cravaack meets a veteran congressman in an elevator, he asks Cravaack whom he beat. "Oberstar" prompts the congressman to label Cravaack "giant killer."

One of Cravaack's biggest moments in the D.C. spotlight occurred when he accused the Los Angeles County sheriff of "dealing with a terrorist organization" for his work with the Council on Islamic-American Relations. Cravaack's comments led to a Washington Post columnist writing that the ghost of Joe McCarthy "found a host" in Cravaack.

The freshman Republican defends his statements, pointing to the FBI naming CAIR as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terror case, a charge the group disputes. "I did my homework," he said.

Cravaack also made headlines for raising national security concerns over Cirrus, a northern Minnesota aircraft maker, selling its business to a Chinese company. The company's CEO lashed back, warning that killing the deal would cost his district jobs. Cravaack says his concerns raised proper skepticism, though the deal was cleared in June by the Treasury Department.

From his statements on CAIR and Cirrus to his warnings about the danger of foreign-owned debt, Cravaack has developed a pointed interest in guarding against foreign threats. He has two books about Islam and terrorism at his desk: "Sharia: The Threat to America" and "The Terrorist Next Door."

Cravaack's new job, he says, is part of his duty to defend the country. "It's just like being in the military," he said. "I want to protect the United States for the next generation, just like my father did for me, and his father did for him."

'A two-year tour'?

Three DFLers have lined up to challenge Cravaack in 2012: Former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson and former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan. The race is sure to get plenty of national attention, and political groups on both sides are already buying ads attacking and defending Cravaack over Medicare and the debt ceiling.

The looming debt limit increase will be one of the biggest votes of Cravaack's term. It's complex for GOP freshmen: Do you back raising the limit, even with cuts, and risk alienating the Tea Party base, which is against raising the limit? Or vote against an increase and risk alienating moderates? Cravaack hasn't decided how he'll vote. "I'm not blanketly against raising it," he said. "But it has to come with cuts."

David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, said the Eighth District will be one of the top races nationally in 2012, but it's no slam dunk for Democrats. "He proved his chops in 2010," Wasserman said of Cravaack. "Democrats underestimate him at their peril."

Running in a district that voted Democratic for 60 years before 2010, Cravaack says he'll be successful in 2012 because he's been visible in his district. He names constituent work as his top accomplishment in Congress so far.

But his family's move won't make that argument easy to make. Democratic bloggers went on the offensive when the move became public, and even the New Hampshire Democratic Party poked fun at him.

"Hopefully, people will judge me by my actions," Cravaack said. "They're going to see I'm still in the district."

The move highlights what's been the toughest part of Cravaack's transition from a retired, stay-at-home dad to an always-on-the-road congressman. His wife, Traci, a pharmaceutical executive, was also frequently traveling to Boston, where she's now based.

They had an incident earlier this year when one son hit his head in a swing accident and was knocked unconscious. Cravaack was nearby, but he said it was scary to think both parents could have been gone.

Cravaack says his wife helps keep things in perspective when it comes to the importance of his family. "She reminds me routinely: 'Hey, bud, this might just be a two-year tour,'" Cravaack said. "So I'd better keep my day job."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb