EVEN BEFORE he ran for public office, Staff Sgt. Nick Miccarelli III had learned a survival skill useful in Delaware County's bare-knuckle political arena.
Getting shot at by Iraqi insurgents tends to put nasty campaign literature into perspective.
In 2007, Miccarelli, a Black Hawk door gunner in the Army National Guard, was elected to Ridley Park Council at age 25. He catapulted to Harrisburg last year, kicking aside Barack Obama's coattails to defeat his Democratic opponent, a former Boeing union boss, in the state House's 162nd District.
It was a bitter campaign, but the baby-faced Republican says that it pales in comparison to fighting off small-arms fire and mortar rounds at a Ramadi outpost.
"After your unit's been in combat, coming back here and having someone say mean things about you in the newspaper doesn't bother you," said Miccarelli, 27, who wears his combat infantryman badge on his blazer.
Miccarelli, who previously served with NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, is on his third tour with the National Guard, stationed in Basra, Iraq. He was shipped off to Fort Sill, Okla., for training shortly after he was sworn in as a state representative.
"The timing was awful," Miccarelli said last week, while back in Delaware County on two weeks of R&R.
The deployment has left his 60,000 constituents without representation, but his district office remains fully staffed. Other Republican lawmakers take turns running his constituent case files back and forth from Harrisburg.
Even though Miccarelli has been absent for most of his time in office, his military service has boosted his political cachet back home, where he is seen as a rising star.
The media-savvy Ridley High grad, who earned a political science degree from the University of Pennsylvania in between deployments, is shattering the old image of the crusty politician.
"He's a likable, bright legislator who really cares deeply about his community," said Andrew Reilly, who last night was elected chairman of the Delaware County GOP. "I think he has a real promising future."
Skinny as a rail and older than he looks, Miccarelli has taken some ribbing from party bosses. At the World Series, a couple fans were calling him Cole Hamels.
"You'd have to be an expert marksman to hit him if he turns sideways!" Reilly joked.
He's working on developing the metaphorical "skin of a rhino," as Ridley Township Republican leader Nick Catania advises novice politicians. But you wouldn't know it by looking at him.
"The first time I met John McNichol," Miccarelli said of the Upper Darby GOP boss, "he said something like, 'You look like a damn altar boy.' "
At 17 years old, Miccarelli tried to convince his father to let him join the Marines. As a compromise, he signed up for the National Guard. The recruiter told his dad that "your boy's not going anywhere" because the unit hadn't deployed since Korea.
"A couple year later, I'm packing my bags," Miccarelli said.
He's now an only child. His sister died of cervical cancer in 2001. To allay his parents' fears in 2006, he convinced them that he was fixing Humvees in Kuwait when he was actually in Ramadi.
His father, an Army vet, got the truth on Easter Sunday when he heard .50-caliber gunfire in the background during a phone call with his son. Miccarelli tried to cover it up as "weapons testing," but his dad didn't buy it.
"He's been dealing with my bulls--- for 26 years," Miccarelli said. "He knows."
Aside from a rocket attack on his base last month, life has been calm in Basra. He's due home by Christmas.
"The problem is, now, there's really nothing going on - and they don't believe me," he said of his parents. "They think I'm storming the beach or something."
Miccarelli, who served as chief of staff to state Rep. Ron Raymond before he was elected to Raymond's seat, is anxious to get back to Harrisburg next session and work on fulfilling his campaign promises, including bringing more jobs to Delaware County.
"He's very energetic, that kid," said Phil Atwood, past commander of the Herbert W. Best VFW Post, where Miccarelli is a member. "It seems to me, that whatever he makes up his mind to do, he'll do it."