It's hard to find a good time to shake hands at a high-school football game in northern New Jersey, where parents and fans approach the sport with near-religious fervor. Mike Ferguson waits until halftime to bound up the metal bleachers, his hand extended. "I didn't want to interrupt the game," he tells a group of women at the far end, "but I'm Mike Ferguson and I'm running for Congress." "We're not here for the game," one of the women replies. "We're here for the girls." She nods toward the field, where her daughter is competing for homecoming queen. Mr. Ferguson slides away, allowing her to enjoy the moment. Homecoming day at a public high school in an overwhelmingly Democratic county-nothing is off-limits to the energetic young Republican in one of the nation's closest congressional races. When Rep. Bob Franks, a Republican, resigned his 7th district seat to run for the U.S. Senate, Democrats were gleeful. Without an incumbent, they saw the race as one of their best chances to pick up a seat on the East Coast. But Mr. Ferguson, a 30-year-old political neophyte, has delighted national Republicans with his unexpectedly strong campaign. The wholesome, soft-spoken schoolteacher comes across as reasonable and nonthreatening-important traits in a district where a majority of voters are registered independents. "What are you?" one woman asks him, clearly meaning his political party. "I'm a teacher," he replies innocently, "and I'd appreciate your vote." The low-key approach appears to be working. Polls show the race a dead heat, and voters seem to be making up their minds based on personality as much as on any policy issues. That clearly frustrates Democratic nominee Maryanne Connelly, a former small-town mayor and AT&T executive, who is trying to portray Mr. Ferguson as too conservative for the district. She warns voters that the Republican is openly "anti-choice," secretly pro-gun, and possibly racist. Ironically enough, all that name-calling may backfire for the Democrats. One local newspaper called Ms. Connelly the "sleaziest" candidate in New Jersey, and some polls show Mr. Ferguson leading among women, who view the Democrat as too aggressive. Republicans, in any case, won't let Ms. Connelly's charges go unchallenged. They're pouring money into the race, already one of the country's 10 most expensive. "They know that the Democrats can't take back the House unless they win this seat," Mr. Ferguson explains. "They know that if they help us maintain this seat in the Republican column, that we'll maintain control of the House. It's just that simple." Other races to watch in the Northeast:
- New Jersey 12 (Democratic incumbent). You might want to diagram this one: Dick Zimmer, a moderate Republican, abandoned this seat in 1996 to run for the Senate against Robert Torricelli. (He lost.) Republican Ike Pappas took over for two years, but then lost by one percentage point to Democrat Rush Holt in the biggest upset of 1998. This year, the moderate Mr. Zimmer and the conservative Mr. Pappas waged a bitter primary battle for the nomination, with Mr. Zimmer coming out on top. He now leads the Democratic incumbent in the polls, though Mr. Holt has about $700,000 more cash on hand going into the campaign's final days.
- Pennsylvania 13 (Democratic incumbent). This is one seat where incumbency might just be a disadvantage. Voters to the north and west of Philadelphia have elected four different representatives in the last five elections. This time, it's Rep. Joe Hoeffel's turn to try to overcome the incumbency liability. He's facing Stewart Greenleaf, a moderate state senator who defeated a more conservative Republican in a hard-fought primary. Though Mr. Hoeffel had almost twice as much cash on hand at the end of September, both parties admit the race is too close to call.
- New York 1 (Democratic incumbent/open). Republicans think they have this one in the bank. When Rep. Michael Forbes jumped to the Democratic Party last year, outraged Republicans made him their No. 1 target for defeat this year. To their delight, voters cooperated: In the Democratic primary, a little-known retired librarian named Regina Seltzer beat the turncoat incumbent by 35 votes. The primary upset makes the Republican nominee, fireworks magnate Felix Grucci, the clear favorite to re-take this moderate Long Island district.
There's nothing Mickey Mouse about the House race in Orlando, Fla. After 20 years in Congress, Republican Bill McCollum decided to run for the Senate, creating a power vacuum in this traditionally Republican district. Bill Sublette, a moderate state senator, stepped in and became the favorite to win the GOP nomination. Then Ric Keller, a conservative, 36-year-old attorney finally convinced a majority of primary voters to vote for him-but it took two primary elections and nearly $600,000 in hard-earned cash. After finally defeating Mr. Sublette by 4 percentage points on Oct. 3, Mr. Keller found himself with only five weeks to unify his party and replenish his war chest for the fight against Democrat Linda Chapin. She has served two terms as Orange County chairman (in effect the mayor), raised $1.2 million, and avoided the kind of bruising primary that so divided the GOP. From his office overlooking the downtown Orlando skyline, Mr. Keller ticked off the votes he is highlighting in his race against Ms. Chapin: She supported a $2.2 billion sales tax increase, a 10 percent tax on electric bills, and an unpopular, $600 million light-rail system. Besides, he said, she's radically pro-abortion, as evidenced by her $140,000 donation from Emily's List, a pro-abortion PAC. But abortion is a tricky issue in the soccer mom haven of central Florida, and Mr. Keller admitted that his pro-life stance may have cost him some support among his base in the business community. With his opponent positioning herself as a pro-business moderate, Mr. Keller has the tough assignment of winning over Sublette Republicans, undecided independents, and pro-abortion business types. If anything keeps this seat in Republican hands, it may be sheer demographics: The GOP enjoys an 8-point edge in voter registration, and Mr. McCollum carried the district with some 65 percent of the vote in his last two reelection bids. But one other advantage Mr. Keller was hoping for hasn't materialized: coattails. George W. Bush is struggling statewide, and no one is predicting any boost for Republicans further down the ticket. Other races to watch in the Southeast:
- Virginia 2 (Democratic incumbent/open). When Rep. Owen Pickett, a conservative Democrat, announced he would retire after 14 years representing this Norfolk-based district, Republicans practically salivated. After all, Ed Schrock, the local GOP state senator, is a former Navy admiral-perfect credentials in a district that's home to five major military bases and 200,000 service members and their families. Mr. Schrock breezed to the GOP nomination, while the Democrats settled on Jody Wagner after a contested primary. Though Ms. Wagner has proved a formidable fundraiser, she has no political experience and lags by double digits in the polls. Republicans see this as one of their best chances anywhere to pick up a current Democratic seat.
- Arkansas 4 (Republican incumbent). Stretching over 26 counties that are home to one-quarter of the state's population, Arkansas' 4th district is considered the most heavily Democratic district currently represented by a Republican. Jay Dickey sailed to reelection in 1998, beating his opponent by 12 percentage points, but that was before he voted to impeach Bill Clinton-a symbolic slap in the face from the man representing Hope, the president's hometown. Mr. Clinton and the national Democrats have campaigned hard for state Sen. Mike Ross. A poll in early October showed the two men tied at 45 percent each, but Mr. Dickey had more money to spend going into the stretch: $320,000 in cash on hand, compared to just $70,000 for Mr. Ross. Outside spending will help to narrow that gap, and experts agree the race is too close to call.
The Lansing, Mich., area-home of thousands of government workers and the giant Michigan State University campus-looks on paper like solidly Democratic territory. But the 8th congressional district, which centers on Lansing, is notoriously fickle, thanks to several suburban counties filled with conservative Reagan Democrats. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, abandoned the seat to run for the Senate, giving Republicans a golden opportunity for a pick-up. In a district that often swings on TV ads and the candidates' personalities, the Republicans fielded a dream candidate. Mike Rogers is young (37), telegenic, and articulate-and he has a resumé to boot. As Republican leader in the state senate, he has compiled a solidly conservative voting record on issues ranging from school choice to tax cuts to crime fighting. As for abortion, the National Abortion Rights Action League recently named him one of just 15 candidates nationally on its "Worst Choice List"-a distinction he says he wears "as a badge of honor." His opponent, state Sen. Dianne Byrum, positions herself as a moderate, though she scores 100 percent on report cards from groups like the National Education Association, the AFL-CIO, and the trial lawyers' PAC. Ms. Byrum is attempting to portray Mr. Rogers as too conservative for the moderate district, but he doesn't think the charge is sticking. "I haven't tried to reinvent myself" to appeal to Lansing's more liberal voters, he told WORLD. "I stand for mainstream, conservative, family values. That's just who I am. I believe mainstream conservatism is alive and well in America." The numbers seem to bear him out: Despite independent expenditures by liberal groups like NARAL, Emily's List, and the environmentalist Sierra Club, Mr. Rogers managed to scratch out a 3-point lead in the latest independent poll. Maintaining that narrow lead will be an expensive proposition. Candidates in the 8th district have to buy ad time in three different media markets-Lansing, Flint, and Detroit. Mr. Rogers says those expensive ads will eat up approximately half of the $2 million he's been able to raise. "This district is so big and so diverse, you can't possibly knock on every door," he complains. His opponent will be able to match him dollar for dollar in TV ad buys, guaranteeing that this crucial race will go down to the wire. Other races to watch in the Midwest:
- Kentucky 6 (Republican incumbent). Keep an eye on Kentucky. A notorious swing state, it offers Democrats several of their best chances to pick off Republican incumbents. Without at least one win in Kentucky, Democrats have little hope of re-taking the House. Republican Ernie Fletcher is the incumbent in the Lexington-based 6th district, but his office may give him little advantage in terms of name recognition and prestige. That's because his opponent, Scotty Baesler, held the seat for six years before resigning in 1998 for an unsuccessful Senate bid. His return sets up a rematch of the 1996 race, when then-Rep. Baesler beat then-state Rep. Fletcher by 12 points. No one expects that kind of margin this time around. Indeed, given the strength of the challenger, Republicans would be happy to hold this one by a single vote.
- Kentucky 3 (Republican incumbent). Louisville, Kentucky's largest city, is not friendly territory for Republicans. Before Anne Northup captured the 3rd district seat in 1996, it had been in Democratic hands for 26 years. To take back what they see as rightfully theirs, Democrats recruited Eleanor Jordan, an outspoken liberal and the only black member of the state legislature. A poll in late September showed the Republicans up by 3 percentage points, but in a district with five registered Democrats for every two Republicans, that lead could evaporate overnight.
- Missouri 6 (Democratic incumbent/open). If name recognition is one of the primary benefits of incumbency, then Steve Danner might as well be the incumbent in this district that covers the northwestern corner of the state. His mother, Pat Danner, is retiring from the House after four terms, leaving him with all the name recognition he could hope for. But Sam Graves, a conservative state senator, has stunned the Danner machine with his campaign skills and fundraising prowess. An Oct. 20 poll showed him leading by 9 points, though 20 percent of the voters said they were still undecided.
It's less than an hour's drive north along I-5 from Seattle to Everett, Wash., but the cities feel much farther apart. The sprawling mansions of Microsoft millionaires in Seattle give way to grimy warehouses, and gleaming office towers are replaced by local union halls. Everett is a town that has yet to forget its blue-collar roots-or its Democratic leanings. Jack Metcalf, a popular high-school teacher, broke the 2nd congressional district's Democratic habit with his surprise election in 1994, then cruised through two easy reelection bids. Still, Democrats insisted that the district, anchored by Everett on the south, would swing back their way once Mr. Metcalf completed his self-limited three terms in Congress. John Koster, a conservative state representative, took up the Republican banner to replace Mr. Metcalf. Democrats nominated county councilman Rick Larsen, and promptly filled his campaign coffers with nearly $900,000 as a sign of their faith in him. Mr. Koster's fundraising has lagged throughout the campaign, leading some to suspect that the national party would write off this race and channel resources elsewhere. But that was before the state's blanket primary on Sept. 19. Because all the candidates' names appear on every voter's ballot, the primary is considered a good predictor of general election results. And, to the surprise of almost everyone, Mr. Koster narrowly outpolled Mr. Larsen in this "Democratic district." Mr. Koster insisted all along that the district's Democratic tilt has been overblown. The liberal partisanship among union leaders, for instance, hid "a more conservative streak among the rank-and-file, where we can make some real inroads." He told WORLD his campaign's internal polls have been showing a dead heat ever since the spring, making this one of the most consistently close races in the country. Thanks to the strong primary results, national political benefactors are taking more seriously those internal polls, and outside money is pouring into the race. Other races to watch in the West:
- California 15 (Republican incumbent/open). In the race for control of the House, no state looms larger than California. Given their trouble in the East, Democrats probably need to pick up at least three seats here to keep their hopes alive. Four current Republican seats look to be in serious danger, and none more so than the Bay Area's 15th congressional district. Republicans reeled when incumbent Rep. Tom Campbell announced he was leaving for a long-shot Senate bid, leaving an open seat in a moderate-to-liberal area. They fielded a strong candidate in state Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, but Democrats countered with Mike Honda, a state senator. Polls show the race too close to call, but Bay Area politics would have to favor the Democrats in any race for an open seat. If the Democrats don't win this one, Speaker-wannabe Dick Gephardt probably won't be moving into a bigger office.
- California 20 (Democratic incumbent). Not content merely to fight a defensive battle in California, Republicans are mounting a serious challenge to Rep. Cal Dooley, a moderate Democrat from the state's Central Valley farming region. Mr. Dooley, a five-term incumbent, is facing former TV newscaster Rich Rodriguez, who's getting help from his surname in this district where 40 percent of voters are Latino. The Republican's main attack is that Mr. Dooley now resides in Virginia and has lost touch with the district. That critique seems to be gaining traction: A September poll by a Fresno newspaper showed Mr. Rodriguez leading, 42 to 38 percent.