(Part of UPI's Special Report on Election 2002)
WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Contrary to what Washington politicians would have voters believe, Tip O'Neill's axiom that all politics is local is holding true in this year's race for control of the House of Representatives.
For months, Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have been hammering on national issues that they feel favor their respective parties: the war on terror for Republicans, and the anemic economy for Democrats.
But for all of their efforts, an examination of the key races shows that control of the narrowly divided 435-seat House, in which Republicans have a slim six-seat majority, is hinging on a matrix of smaller issues that are often intensely local.
"In a lot of ways, it's going to be race by race by race. A lot could come down to which candidate is getting the farm vote in his district, or issues of character, or a whole range of quirky, unusual factors," said Carroll Doherty, editor at large at the Pew Research Center.
Between 30 and 40 races will determine which way the House swings in November, a number that reflects the tremendous advantage held by incumbents in the House, a consensus of analysts from both parties said.
In almost all of those races, concerns about the economy at large and the war on terror have taken a backseat. In some cases, that's because candidates have taken remarkably similar stances on the major issues.
In South Dakota, for example, 31-year-old Democrat Stephanie Herseth and 63-year-old Republican Bill Janklow, a four-term South Dakota governor, agree on almost everything: from the need to provide more aid to farmers to fully backing President George W. Bush on a war with Iraq.
"This just happens to be one of those campaigns where there's not a lot of differences on major philosophical issues," said Jim Hagen, Janklow's campaign manager.
Many local races are focused on what are, by Washington's standards, "second-tier issues," from a candidate's support from pro-abortion groups, to differences on the candidate's approach to social security reform or prescription drug subsidies for seniors.
And in some districts, standard issues have been thrust into the background all together. A glance at the national election scene indicates that the balance of the House could be influenced by issues as quirky as a candidate's good looks; as scandalous as whether a candidate knowingly set up a sham third party candidate to weaken his opponent; as odd as a candidate's husband stealing an opponent's election signs; and as straight-shooting as whether a Democrat can be both convincingly anti-abortion and pro-gun.
Key national issues are not playing along party lines this election season, making this election look even more local than usual, a number of analysts said.
With a Republican in the White House, the ailing economy should be fodder for Democrats. In early October, unemployment stood at 5.7 percent, up from 4.2 percent when President George W. Bush took office. The poverty rate rose last year and the typical household's income fell for the first time in a decade.
Polls conducted by both parties show the economy as the No. 1 concern of voters. But a number of recent polls also show that voters have as much confidence in the Republicans to improve the economy as they do in the Democrats.
"Voters aren't prepared to blame the Republicans for the state of the economy," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "I think that the Democrats have the upper hand on a lot of the economic issues, but Republicans have come back and really battled well."
Terrorism is also not factoring into most local level House races, even though recent national level polls give Republicans the edge on the issue.
Advertising in the top House races, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin Advertising Project, is being dominated by ads on taxes and on the cost of prescription drugs, each at 21 percent. The next most important issues are Social Security, 17 percent, education, 16 percent, Medicare, 15 percent, and terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks at 2 percent.
The larger issue of who will control Congress also doesn't seem to be playing well in districts. A national opinion survey conducted this year by the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of voters said the issue of which party controls Congress would not focus into their vote, compared with 46 percent who said it would.
Meanwhile, the top issues of the moment on Capitol Hill seem far off from many local races, where the fields of what will actually make or break candidates around the country are notably muddy.
In South Dakota, a state hit hard by this year's drought and suffering the affects of the general economic downturn, polls a few weeks before the election showed Herseth pulling even with Janklow.
Herseth has never held public office, and her success so far seems to have little to do with issues. In one recent debate at the Ramkota Hotel in Aberdeen, for example, the two candidates agreed on almost everything, parting ways only on the minor issue of federal Community Block Grants, reporters noted.
What tension exists is about issues of character and experience. Janklow publicly refers to his attractive opponent as "Stephanie" and has harped on the support she has received from an out-of-state pro-abortion rights group. Herseth, the granddaughter of a state governor and daughter of a state legislator, is being helped by Janklow's gruff demeanor and allegations that he may owe taxes on some $400,000 in campaign funds.
"To me, this really comes down to, because we are living in such perilous times, whether or not we can afford to send someone to Washington who doesn't have any experience," said Hagen.
In Minnesota, an unusual accusation of ticket loading has drawn attention away from real issue differences on social security and nuclear waste disposal in one of the riskiest national races for Democrats.
Democrat Bill Luther, a fourth-term incumbent, has become mired in accusations that his campaign manager encouraged a third-party candidate to run on a "No-New Taxes" platform to siphon support away from Republican challenger John Kline.
The campaign manager, Bob Dechine, told UPI that the introduction of the third candidate, Sam Garst, was something "more akin to a prank". Meanwhile, the debacle has spiraled out of control. Kline -- a former Marine colonel who is challenging Luther for the third time -- insisted he wouldn't attend debates unless the sham candidate was invited. He publicly called on Luther to apologize or fire Dechine. Luther has not agreed.
"It was a blatant attempt to deceive voters, and it matters to people. We are not going to let the issue go," said Luther campaign manager Shawn Hooper, who said he thought the issue could make or break the election.
In races where issue differences are extremely narrow, some candidates are trying to appeal to national themes: such as who should control of the House. That's clearly been the case in one of the closest watched and best-funded races in this election- the Maryland battle between eight-term incumbent Connie Morella and Democrat Chris Van Hollen.
Morella, 71, is a well-liked Republican who votes like a Democrat. Van Hollen is trying to convince voters that they want a real Democrat who won't ever have side with the conservative Republican leadership. Backed by heavy advertising, the strategy seems to be working: the most recent polls show Morella trailing slightly.
Some of the critical races have veered into the absurd. In the too-close-to call match up in Central Florida between incumbent Rep. Kathleen Graham and Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, Brown-Waite's husband recently admitted to stealing and mutilating a number of Graham's campaign signs. Brown-Waite recently apologized to voters: "It was the right thing to do," her campaign manager Brian Walsh said.
As Democrats battle for open seats in rural areas, and newly created seats in the South and West, candidates emphasize their traditional social values on litmus test issues such as abortion and gun control. In Tennessee, for example, local Democratic leaders, including Al Gore, have united strongly behind state Sen. Lincoln Davis, a pro-gun, anti-abortion activist.
And the issue of Social Security continues to resonate in many of the tightest races around the country: in the dead-even fight between Democrat Jill Long Thompson and Republican Chris Chocola for an open House seat in Indiana; in Georgia over the battle over the seat vacated by Republican Saxby Chabliss, now a candidate for the Senate, and in West Virginia, where Democrats are blasting incumbent Shelly Moore Capito over the idea of investing Social Security taxes in private accounts.
Of the 30 or so competitive seats, most analysts see the majority of them leaning Republican. If the election were held tomorrow, said Larry Sabato, a top election watcher from the University of Virginia, Republicans in the House would not only maintain their majority- they would gain seats.
"Democrats could win every seat that was leaning, likely or solidly Democratic, plus every toss up race, and still come up two seats short of a majority," agreed non-partisan political analyst Charlie Cook.
Republicans are generally thought to have favored better in the recent redistricting. They have also raised more money overall -- with $130 million flowing into the National Republican Congressional Committee for this election and $72.5 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, committee spokesmen said.
As the election approaches, there is still time for a strong national breeze to push many of the tightest races in the Democrats' direction.
"With so few voters deciding the election, its difficult to make a definite call. Nov. 5 is going to be a long night," said Rob Richie, the director of the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy.