Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of profiles examining the major candidates in the U.S. Senate race.

Rob Maness, who is making his first run for elective office, says he only started paying attention to politics as a Harvard University graduate student.

“I was getting taught by some really good folks, like Mickey Edwards, a congressman from Oklahoma, and we talked about the ‘Contract with America,’” Maness said, referring to 1994 promises made by Republicans if voters gave them the majority in Congress and a major author of those precepts.

“That’s when I started paying attention to who was running and what their policies were,” Maness said. He kept up with political world from sidelines as he finished out his 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, retired, and moved to Louisiana in September 2011 to work at Entergy Corp.

Maness, who turns 53 in two weeks, may have been late to politics but when he took the bait, the hook set hard. He quit his job and announced his bid to unseat three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in Tuesday’s election.

Some in the political community — particularly establishment Republicans who are backing U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy — call his quest quixotic. Several polls have tracked the rookie candidate in the low teens, nowhere close to getting into the Dec. 6 runoff, but near enough to force a runoff between Landrieu and Cassidy.

He may be a novice on the campaign trail, but Maness has won some pretty big endorsements: Sarah Palin, the former GOP vice presidential candidate; and Tony Perkins, who runs the national conservative Christian lobbying group, Family Research Council.

Maness has carved out a position to the right of Cassidy, who has failed to energize very conservative voters. (While he won’t say Cassidy’s name, Maness does promise to endorse the Baton Rouge congressman.)

“I’m a clear contrast over the other Republican. I am a conservative,” Maness said. “But I’m focused on defeating her.”

For media across the nation, Maness perhaps is best known for a campaign commercial in which he tapes the mouth of an alligator closed.

“One moment of weakness and the alligators can eat you alive,” Maness is heard saying, then promising to stand up to “big spenders” in the federal government and to protect gun rights.

Maness says in interviews and on the stump that the federal government is too intrusive and needs to be reined in. “I’m not going to standby and watch my grandson inherit a United States that doesn’t follow the constitution,” he said.

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, Maness said, “only represent the key rights the founders thought they needed to write down. They represent the natural right the creator gave us, like the right to human life, no matter at what stage, like the right to private property.”

Maness, whose slogan is “One of Us,” has five advanced degrees from elite schools, including an M.S. in public administration from Harvard, on military operations from the Air Command and Staff College, and in strategic studies from the Naval War College.

Maness is endorsed by Sacramento, Calif.-based Tea Party Express, one of the nation’s largest and best funded. The organization was instrumental in the campaigns of Republicans Ted Cruz, of Texas; Mike Lee, of Utah; and Rand Paul, of Kentucky, as well as Chris McDaniel’s close but unsuccessful challenge of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

For this election, Tea Party Express has endorsed dozens of GOP candidates, including senate candidates in Georgia, South Carolina, and South Dakota.

He also is backed by Senate Conservatives Fund, Conservative Campaign Committee, Americans for Legal Immigration PAC and Madison Project PAC.

He raised $2.3 million and spent $1.9 million as of Sept. 30, the latest filing available. Most of his money is coming in small donations from around the country. But Cassidy has raised $10.9 million and Landrieu has $12.9 million in campaign receipts. Additionally, independent groups are spending tens of millions of dollars on issue advertising that tangentially support Cassidy or Landrieu.

Palin has backed several of the Tea Party Express candidates and has visited a few times on behalf of Maness.

“Rob Maness isn’t beholden to any machine,” Palin said during a trip to New Orleans. “He’s going to be reinforcement for the good guys, like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.”

Maness said he looks up to Cruz, Lee and Paul. Louisiana “Sen. (David) Vitter, we have things that we’re not going to agree on, but we also have a lot in common,” he said.

The largest tea party organization in this state, Tea Party of Louisiana with about 15,000 members, is not endorsing either Cassidy or Maness in the Tuesday election. Rather, said leader Bob Reid, the group will wait to see who wins.

Both are good candidates, even though he doesn’t totally agree with everything they say and do, Reid says. For instance, in early September Cassidy said Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, “runs the Senate like a plantation.”

Maness responded by demanding Cassidy “immediately apologize” for using a term “that is incredibly offensive to many Americans.”

“We had been pushing Dr. Bill to come out strong on the issues,” Bob Reid said, “and when he finally did, Col. Maness, instead of jumping on the bandwagon, he attacked him. I’m still a little irritated at that.”

Maness says Affirmative Action, the federal law that guaranteed minorities could participate in government contracts, may have been necessary in the 1960s. “But, I don’t believe it is necessary any more. I believe our society is very close to becoming color-blind,” Maness said, at least judging from his perspectives in the business community and military.

Standing at a weekend Family Research Council rally that felt a lot like a “dinner on the grounds,” popular at rural Protestant churches, Maness described his early years as an Air Force brat. His father, who came from a large farm family, was a master sergeant in the Air Force. Maness says he was born at an Army hospital in Tacoma, Washington, bounced around bases across the country and overseas — he finished kindergarten in Las Vegas — and graduated high school in Jackson, Tenn. At age 17, Maness joined the Air Force.

Maness worked up from a basic airman who disposed ordnance to an officer who flew B-1 bombers. He was at the Pentagon on 9/11. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and Air Medal for combat operations.

His biggest job began in April 2010 as commander of the 377th Air Base Wing “Tigers” at the 52,000-acre nuclear Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M.

“He actually is, for lack of a better term, the mayor of Kirtland Air Force Base,” his wife told a newspaper.

His wife, Candy, was a reporter for the devotional newspaper Spencer Evening World in Indiana, near where the couple owns a farm. She later worked for military publications and the Montgomery Advertiser, a daily newspaper in Alabama. They have five children, three of whom are on active duty and two of whom are still living with them in Madisonville.

“I found him to be a very strong leader,” said Terri Cole, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. “He leads with both his heart and his fist – and he has a very good leadership combination in that way … I was especially impressed with his ability to cut through the bureaucracy that sometimes can exist and focus on trying to solve the problem at hand.”

He retired in September 2011 and moved to Louisiana, working for utility company until May when announced his run for the U.S. Senate.

“We think of Louisiana as home. It’s where we have lived the longest,” Maness said, calculating about 11 years, including the six and half years he spent at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City.

“I consider myself a homegrown Louisiana boy,” he said.

Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau. Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/