In the 16 hours before he returned home, the freshman congressman who was never supposed to win would put on 40 pounds of gear at a firehouse and spend nearly two hours at a grocery store, talking to voters over by the beer nuts.
He would toss down half a quesadilla at a strip mall, meet more voters at a hardware store, and chat with business types before putting on the suit and shoes for two 7 p.m. dinner commitments, an hour and 20 minutes apart.
Lately, this is a typical Saturday for McNerney, the 56-year-old wind engineer who felled a Republican Goliath, Richard Pombo of Tracy, shocking the political establishment. Now nearly halfway through his first term, he has set out to prove that his victory in this traditionally Republican district of farm country and upscale exurbs was no fluke.
One of 30 Democrats carried to Washington on a wave of voter discontent, he is high on the GOP's 2008 target list. His race for a second term promises to be one of the nastiest and most expensive in the country -- the opposition papered his district with an attack flier the day he was sworn in. And many people see it as a test of how durable the Democrats' 2006 victories will be in a presidential election year.
But McNerney, whose anti-war, pro-environment campaign was fueled by liberal activists, is proving to be a more moderate lawmaker than many people expected. In 10 months, he has managed to annoy liberal bloggers who are pledging to take their money elsewhere, while picking up support from Republicans at home who can't remember the last time they liked a Democrat.
For a man who has spent his life pondering the complexities of math and harnessing the power of wind, McNerney's political calculus is fairly simple: meet as many voters as he can.
So he makes the five-hour cross- country trip from Washington every Friday night and back every Monday at dawn, a record few geographically disadvantaged California members can claim.
Airsick-prone, he came down with bronchitis twice; two other times he threw up on the plane.
"It's really important to touch base with people at home because you lose track in Washington. I see it. You have to make a real effort to stay grounded," McNerney said, riding past spinning wind turbines, most of which he has climbed, on the velvety brown hills along Interstate 580 that separate his home in Pleasanton and the Northern San Joaquin Valley he represents in Congress.
'Congress at Your Corner'
Even now, some people call this Pombo Country after the conservative, Stetson-wearing rancher who commanded the seat for seven terms. President Bush easily prevailed here twice.
McNerney puts in marathon Saturdays listening to voters in coffee shops and firehouses in sessions known as "Congress at Your Corner."
He recently held event No. 23 at the family-run Morada Market in Stockton. Richard Shaffer and Wil-liam Fields, retired community activists in their 60s who mourned Pombo's loss as the end of an era, were waiting for McNerney in the parking lot when his car pulled up.
"This is a very Republican area, and I'm personally very pleased with the job McNerney has done," Shaffer said. "The congressman is not considered the type of person who wakes up every morning hating George Bush."
The mayor of Lodi, never a supporter, was effusive recently after one of McNerney's whirlwind visits: "You could have spent more time with the congressman than with your spouse."
Accessibility is becoming something of a McNerney trademark, such as the sun-blocking gray-and-black fedora he wears on his dermatologist's orders -- practical but impressive. His liberal views on civil unions and reproductive rights don't agree with his more conservative constituents. But he is with a lot of them on traffic, immigration, health care and veterans assistance. Recently, he introduced a bill to exempt small farms and businesses from the estate tax.
On a recent Saturday, though, voters of all stripes seemed most impressed by the fact that he was there. "You could see Pombo -- for $100 a plate," said Paul Frekey, 47, a Republican voter who works in commercial real estate.
By now, a line of about 30 voters is stretching from the beer nuts to the refrigerator case.
"It's an exhausting pace," Shaffer observes to his friend. "If he keeps it up, he's going to convert this area, don't you think, Bill?"
"Yep, he very well could."
The valley feels like a small town with big problems.
People priced out of San Francisco are moving in and development is exploding. The on-ramp to the interstate starts backing up at 5:30 a.m. and some residents dread a 2,000-home subdivision under construction, promising an additional 4,000 cars.
The war in Iraq has come home here, too; Tracy has the second-highest combat casualty rate in California.
And immigration is a complicated matter in a farm community that wants secure borders but is plagued by a labor shortage. The pear crop rotted on the trees last year for lack of pickers, and the tops of the still-unpruned cherry orchards are spouting madly.
Growth also has altered the political landscape, with more San Francisco Democrats and moderates moving in, whittling the Republican advantage to about 5 percent. But given that Republicans are generally more reliable voters, McNerney can take small comfort.
"Jerry McNerney is far too liberal for the district," said Kevin Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"In a presidential election year with high Republican turnout he is going to find himself in an uphill battle."
Liberal activists aren't happy
In a hint of the campaign to come, he called McNerney a "Pelosi clone" in reference to Nancy Pelosi, the liberal House speaker from San Francisco.
While McNerney's more moderate stands have endeared him to some in his district, they have infuriated people on the left who mobilized in 2006 to put his long-shot bid over the top. He was one of only 59 Democrats, and the only one from the Bay Area, to vote against a bill in May to withdraw all combat troops within nine months.
McNerney says he does not regret voting against a bill that included no diplomatic strategy or veterans' benefits -- "Oh no, that was the right thing to do, I would absolutely do that again."
He further irked the anti-war activists when he came back from Iraq seeking to compromise with Republicans on a withdrawal timetable that would survive a Bush veto. Critics called it capitulation.
"He was elected by a grass-roots group that walked that district from one end to the other believing he would be a grass-roots voice ... and he's turned his back on them," said Tim Carpenter, national director of Progressive Democrats of America.
That means McNerney probably cannot count on another major infusion of cash from the left to finance a race that could cost as much as $4 million per candidate.
So he walks down the street from the Capitol to Democratic campaign headquarters about three times a week, calling donors for money. He has raised $1 million, more than twice as much as his challenger, former Assemblyman Dean Andal, a Republican from Stockton.
Maybe a bit too much candor?
McNerney is less scripted than many of his longer serving colleagues. A more practiced politician might not have disclosed , for example, that he had to overcome the urge to fall asleep at some committee hearings, the way he used to at lectures and seminars.
A wind energy consultant in his previous life, landing this job pushed McNerney and his wife, Mary, to the financial brink. They would have had to sell the stucco house in which they raised their three children, had he lost.
But he didn't. Now he'd like to con- tinue in the first career he has had where a gift for logic doesn't come in handy. It's not like math.
"This job is more about demagoguery. Oh, Andy doesn't like that," McNerney laughed, waiting for his communications director and driver this day, Andy Stone, to wince at what might be considered ill-advised candor. He goes on anyway. "It's not about getting up there and arguing logically. Normally, it's not."
But here at home, it's not about demagoguery, either.
It's about listening, which he seems to do a lot of.
"You have to care to do this, come out and meet the folks and listen to what their problems are," said Fields, one of the people waiting Saturday morning for McNerney in the Morada Market parking lot. Fields was wearing a gray-and-black fedora -- in honor of the man he didn't vote for.