- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella stops by the Montgomery County Metro station for one more campaign appearance in months packed with them. She stands alone in the frigid night, looking fresh and optimistic, shaking hands and chatting with constituents like they're neighbors.
"It's nice to see you, Connie," surprised commuters say, bounding out of the station. "Keep up the good work. Good luck. We support you."
Among the well-wishers, some commuters approach with rueful smiles. "I'm so torn," one says gently to her, the Republican incumbent. Another takes her to task for negative campaign ads. Still another tells the her that, despite her personal regard for Mrs. Morella, this time she must vote for a Democrat.
This is Connie Country and has been for 16 years. But that was before fissures appeared in her support base the wealthy, hyper-educated and liberal voters she represents and has done so often at the expense of chafing the conservative elements of her party.
Sometimes, when voters tell her they can't support her anymore, she becomes quietly incensed, a little hurt. She has spent years answering her constituents' calls and questions and requests for help. She votes against her party when she knows her constituents would want her to do so: on gun control, abortion and, more recently, against giving President Bush authority to wage war against Iraq. She has made a career of proclaiming her independence. What more do they want? she asks.
But the sunny spirit that has made her, a 71-year-old Italian grandmother, so personally popular and gets her labeled as "nice Connie" reasserts itself easily.
"It's exciting," she says of the close race that puts her in a dead heat with state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen. "The momentum is there. Hey, I'm the comeback kid."
She realizes that, this time, she could lose. Her opponent's promise to vote for a Democratic House speaker seems to be resonating among voters in the 8th Congressional District, which lost Republicans and gained Democrats after redistricting this year.
Political observers say there is little chance of Democrats taking back the House; they would need to win all 16 seats nationwide that were rated as tossups last week by Washington analyst Charlie Cook. But Mrs. Morella knows that some voters don't hear that argument.
"People are beginning to realize that Congress isn't going to change," she said. "A vote for my opponent on that reasoning is a wasted vote. I can serve them better. But people hear those arguments over and over again, and become prisoners of their own conviction."
"In the end, you reach a point where you just have to say, 'I'm here, I've done it all, and you just have to make a decision,'" she added.
Tomorrow, the nation will be watching this race becasue it is pivotal to continued Republican control of the House. In Montgomery County, that has become more critical to some voters than the personalities, records and convictions of the candidates.
"The bottom-line issues for many people is whether they want Dick Gephardt or Tom Delay as leader," said Ira Sockowitz, 41, of Chevy Chase who is supporting Mr. Van Hollen. "A lot of people don't want unchecked power in the White House, particularly in light of what is going on with the economy and the war on Iraq. Connie may reflect the county's morals, but there is a bigger issue at hand now: control of the legislature and a divided government."
That focus has become a boon for Mr. Van Hollen, who took a narrow victory from party favorite Mark K. Shriver in the Democratic primary two months ago.
His statements at campaign appearances stress his record and the bigger picture: regaining control of the House and installing a representative that can be a leader in the Democratic Party. He often derides pro-Morella arguments that focus on keeping a centrist Republican in Congress "to protect the species."
"A lot of people are coming up to me and tell me they are longtime Morella supporters but will now vote for me," Mr. Van Hollen said. "We just have to keep getting the message out. The more they hear it, the better it is for us."
That is because their positions on many issues do little to distinguish the candidates.
Mr. Van Hollen, 43, has pushed legislation on gun locks, health care and education in his 12-year legislative career in the state House.
Mrs. Morella has worked on women's issues, environmental protection, workers' rights and health. She leads the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District and is so popular with city officials that Mayor Anthony A. Williams held a fund-raiser for her this year.
Both agree on abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection, and oppose a unilateral war on Iraq. Mrs. Morella opposed impeaching President Clinton.
Where the two candidates differ is on tax cuts Mrs. Morella supported them and on how they treat their parties.
Mrs. Morella has often gone out of her way to distance herself from her party and stress her independence.
One prominent local Republican remarked that he wouldn't vote for her because "she is a Democrat in Republican clothing."
Mr. Van Hollen stresses party affiliation and unity. Wednesday he made one of many campaign appearances flanked by local and nationally prominent Democrats, such as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and former Vice President Al Gore.
It is a strategy that seems to be working, with some of the many who have crossed party lines to vote for Mrs. Morella time and time again.
"I like Morella and have voted for her," said Julie Knoll, of Kensington.
"She's fabulous on constituent services. If control of the House were not up for grabs, I would be less concerned about voting Democratic. Right now, she is not the kind of leadership we need in Congress. She only remains independent on issues the party lets her."
Many like Mrs. Knoll say the Democrats have never run such a "serious" challenger, one with a strong record, a clear message and formidable campaign skills.
Still, many Democrats say they will cross party lines tomorrow. One woman who works for a Democratic institution and asked that her name not be used said she and her family will support Mrs. Morella despite their being staunch Democrats.
"She has done a great job for constituents," she said. "She does a good job working across the aisle."
"Besides," she added, smiling, "how do you fire someone so nice?"

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