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Former official, dentist seek visibility in key House race

FOXBOROUGH – The Airstream trailer gliding into the campground was impossible to miss, enveloped in eye-popping red, with a larger-than-life image of the congressional candidate.

“Who’s Elizabeth Childs?” a boy on a bicycle wondered aloud.

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Elizabeth Childs is a psychiatrist campaigning from her camper, which bears the logo, “Washington Needs a Shrink.” The commissioner of mental health for four years under former Governor Mitt Romney, she is one of three Republicans vying to replace retiring Democrat US Representative Barney Frank.

In Thursday’s Fourth Congressional District Republican primary, Childs, a former Brookline School Committee member, faces Sean Bielat, the former Marine who challenged Representative Barney Frank two years ago, and first-time candidate David L. Steinhof, a Fall River dentist.

Both Childs and Steinhof have been outspent by Bielat, who garnered national name recognition in 2010 as the Republican willing to take on Frank. The winner will face the victor in a Democratic field led by Joseph P. Kennedy III.

With Kennedy and Bielat consuming much of the oxygen -- and nearly all the money -- in the race, Childs and Steinhof have struggled to gain visibility. To counter that, Childs has spent her summer going campground to campground in the Airstream, while Steinhof has donned his hiking shoes and dashed door to door, visiting local Rod and Gun Clubs in between.

Childs, 52, was born in Van Wert, Ohio to a tax attorney father and a probation officer mother. She recalls working summers on a farm and revels in the memory of helping birth a calf with her cousins and no adults in sight. Her mother died of breast cancer while she was in high school and as the eldest of three, Childs became the caregiver.

At 17, she fled for college, studying chemistry at Mount Holyoke College, then putting herself through medical school at the University of Cincinnati.

Raised a Republican, she left the party for years, feeling alienated by a platform that excluded abortion rights. “I voted with my feet,” she said in a recent interview. “I felt the party didn’t want me anymore.”

As she tells it, her abortion rights platform was shaped by a jarring experience as a young medical resident: She delivered the twin babies of a 12-year-old girl whose own father was the babies’ father and who was in the room.

“I don’t know who was more scared. The 12-year-old or me,” she said. “And the 12-year-old looks me in the eyes – I’ll never forget this – and she says, ‘doctor, now what do I do?’ It just changed forever my perspective of the importance of us having a safe alternative when there are no other choices. It was so clear to me.”

For seven years, she served as director of psychiatry at Carney Hospital in Dorchester, a Catholic hospital where she came to embrace fiscal responsibility as a means to charitable ends.

“The nuns used to say to me, Beth, we know you want to help everybody. But no money, no mission,” she said. It was there, in Dorchester, that she began to advocate for social services for the disadvantaged. When Romney was elected, he asked her to join his administration, disregarding the fact that she was not a Republican.

Now, she emphasizes her roots in both parties, portraying her openness as an asset to a Congress that is often unwilling to compromise and casting herself as a moderate in the mold of Massachusetts’ successful GOP leaders, including former governor William F. Weld, who has endorsed her.

In state government, she presided over budget cuts, but also championed the construction of the newly opened mental hospital in Worcester that aims to repair years of neglect at outmoded inpatient facilities, which had fallen out of favor for outpatient services. The $302 million project marked the most expensive public construction project outside of transportation in state history.

And unlike the average campaign bus, her Airstream is more than a temporary prop. She lived in it for a year and a half along with her husband, toddler and newborn while deleading her late-1800s Brookline home.

Steinhof, 51, a Fall River native, presents himself as a fully credentialed local in a district that runs from the suburbs west of Boston down to parts of Fall River. “I’m the only candidate born and raised in the district,” he told voters last week, as he knocked on doors in Plainville.

Eager to interact with voters, he strode swiftly down the center of the street in his Merrill shoes and even rode the outside running board of the Jeep his volunteer was driving to make faster progress.

A graduate of BMC Durfee High School and Providence College, he attended Southeastern Massachusetts University, now UMass Dartmouth, before attending Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, his biography notes.

“I’m actually a dentist, not a politician,” he told voters last week, a selling point that he emphasizes as he stresses his first-time candidacy and his work as a small-business owner. Steinhof is the owner of Steinhof Dental Clinic, a practice established by his father in 1947, and is married to Susan, with two daughters.

Considered the most conservative candidate in the District 4 race, Steinhof calls for an audit of the Federal Reserve, like Ron Paul. A gun owner and National Rifle Association member for years, he’s also a strong proponent of the right to bear arms who says a federal assault weapons ban would not prevent mass shootings like the one in Colorado this summer.

Asked what can be done to prevent gun violence, he said that all people — including the president — should be held to existing laws. He cited the government’s refusal to release documents about a failed operation that allowed gun-smuggling to Mexican gangs.

“I think we need to be a lot more consistent in politics,” Steinhof answered.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert.
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