ILLINOIS The headline-grabbing race in Chicago is for an obscure but patronage-rich office - clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court.
Pitting a ``new'' white-ethnic Republican and a ``traditional'' white-ethnic Democrat, the contest is billed as a test of the party loyalty of Reagan Democrats.
Democrats say their candidate, Aurelia Pucinski, will carry the election handily against Edward Vrdolyak, a controversial former chairman of the county Democratic Party, who is now a Republican. Republicans say that even if Mr. Vrdolyak loses, however, his Chicago supporters and voter-registration drives in the suburbs could win additional ballot-box clout for the GOP.
Congressional races to watch are topped by the Fourth District, south and west of Chicago. Freshman Republican Rep. Jack Davis is in a close match with former state Sen. George E. Sangmeister to represent what Mr. Davis calls a ``nitty-gritty district'' that weaves through suburbs and old industrial towns.
In the central 18th District, Republican Rep. Robert Michel, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, is up against an old foe, Democrat G.Douglas Stephens, who almost unseated him in 1982. Mr. Michel has tended his district more assiduously, though, and he won his last election with 63 percent of the vote.
In the 21st District, Democrat Jerry Costello is expected to beat GOP candidate Robert H. Gaffner, with help from a solid base among East St. Louis's black voters. Mr. Costello squeaked past Mr. Gaffner into the late Melvin Price's seat in a special election this summer.
For the first time in 20 years, Democrats have a good chance of taking the governorship in this usually reliable Republican state.
Their candidate, Indiana Secretary of State Evan Bayh, has led Lt. Gov. John M. Mutz (R) in the polls all summer. Even after the nomination of Indiana's Sen. Dan Quayle (R) as vice-president, which should boost the Republican turnout, Mr. Mutz remains the underdog. He has highlighted his governmental experience over his younger opponent. But Mr. Bayh appears to be scoring well with voters by stressing the need for a change.
The GOP can take some consolation in the expected reelection of Republican Sen. Richard Lugar over Democrat Jack Wickes, an Indianapolis lawyer.
But some nip-and-tuck congressional races remain. The contest in the Third Congressional District is a rematch between incumbent Republican Rep. John Hiler and Democrat Tom Ward. In 1986, Mr. Hiler won by just 47 votes - the nation's closest House race that year.
In the Fifth District, Democratic Rep. Jim Jontz is trying to get elected to a second term in a normally safe Republican area. His GOP opponent, Patricia L. Williams, was a top aide to the former eight-term incumbent, Elwood Hillis.
With no US Senate or gubernatorial race, Iowa is in a once-in-12-years political Brigadoon. Its residents seem to be resting from the surfeit of political hoopla during the presidential caucuses in February. As one resident says, after you've seen Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis down the street, it's hard to get excited about seeing him on TV.
Democrats hope that Mr. Dukakis's bid will pull the chair out from under a few GOP congressmen. Top on their wish list is the Second District, where Democrat Eric Tabor is in a rematch against GOP Rep. Thomas Tauke.
Likewise, Republicans are hoping to recapture their traditional turf in the Third District, where GOP lawyer Donald B. Redfern is challenging Democratic Rep. David Nagle. Although the GOP held the seat from 1934 to 1986, Mr. Nagle is expected to win reelection.
Ever since Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas folded up his presidential campaign, this election year has been something of an anticlimax here. There are no statewide races in Kansas. The incumbent US representatives - three Republicans and two Democrats - appear to have only token opposition. Democrats hope to pick up a few seats in the state Senate and House, but they concede it will be difficult to take control of either chamber.
Kentucky is getting more attention from the presidential candidates this year than anytime in recent memory. It is winnable by either George Bush or Michael Dukakis - if recent polls are any guide - so both keep dropping by.
There's not much home-grown political excitement, though.
The only enlivening contest so far is over a US House seat in Appalachian coal country. Rep. Carl C. (Chris) Perkins (D), the son and successor of the late House legend Carl Perkins, is facing his first real election fight after two terms. His challenger is former circuit judge Will Scott (R). Mr. Perkins has been undercut by controversy over the circumstances of his divorce and remarriage.
The hottest statewide vote in Kentucky this year is a referendum on a state lottery - the cornerstone of Democrat Wallace Wilkinson's winning campaign for governor last year. Church-based opposition will be strong, but the horse-racing industry - though a competitor for the gambler's dollar - won't buck the tide.
With a reverse-coattails effect, presidential politics is expected to be influenced in Michigan by two statewide races.
A referendum that would prohibit public funding of abortions should draw well-organized right-to-life groups to the polls. Members of these groups may vote Republican in other races. ``This is probably a little bit of a plus for Bush,'' says Richard Elling, a political scientists at Wayne State University.
On the other hand, Democrats hope that a strong showing by Sen. Donald Riegle Jr. in his reelection contest against Republican challenger Jim Dunn will pull up Michael Dukakis.
The closest race at the congressional level is in the Upper Peninsula's 11th District, where popular Democratic state Sen. Mitch Irwin is challenging Republican Rep. Robert Davis.
The Second District in the Ann Arbor area is also under watch. There, moderate Republican Rep. Carl Pursell faces a strong campaign by state Sen. Lana Pollack (D). Ms. Pollack stresses her record of support for environmental and labor legislation. Mr. Pursell is favored.
Other statewide referendums include proposals for large bond issues to clean up toxic-waste sites and construct recreation facilities.
In a state where both major parties have odd first or last names (Independent Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor, respectively), Hubert Humphrey III's name has a familiar ring.
In his challenge to incumbent US Sen. David Durenberger (R), the son of the late senator and vice-president is drawing on his activist role as state attorney general, with an emphasis on antidrug themes.
Senator Durenberger, who is the favorite in what is expected to be a close race, is running as a ``caring'' Republican concerned with the environment.
In the Senate contest and in a tight congressional race, US farm policies are likely to be a center of dispute, with Democratic challengers saying the administration didn't do enough to help farmers.
In the Seventh Congressional District, the setting of Sinclair Lewis's ``Main Street,'' Republican Rep. Arlan Stangeland hopes to do better than in 1986, when he won by just 121 votes. He faces former state Sen. Marv Hanson (D).
As one of only three Midwestern states with both a gubernatorial and Senate race this year, Missouri should be crackling with political energy. But it isn't. Both incumbent Republicans appear secure.
Sen. John Danforth is better financed and better organized than his opponent, Democratic state Sen. Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, who is not well-known statewide.
Gov. John Ashcroft faces a better-known opponent in Democrat Betty Hearnes, whose husband was Missouri governor during the 1970s. But she too is fighting an uphill battle.
Democratic hopes are brighter in two congressional races. The Seventh District in southwest Missouri has been a battleground ever since incumbent Rep. Gene Taylor (R) announced he wouldn't run again. Businessman Mel Hancock, champion of Missouri's antitax amendment, hopes to keep this conservative district in GOP hands. But he is running neck and neck with Democrat Max E. Bacon, a judge who left the bench to enter the race.
In southeast Missouri's Eighth District, Rep. Bill Emerson (R) faces a rematch with farmer-activist Wayne Cryts (D), who lost by six points in 1986. This time Mr. Cryts has professionalized his campaign and exchanged his denims for a suit and tie. He could win an upset.
Sen. David Karnes (R) faces a tough reelection battle against former Democratic Gov. Robert Kerrey.
Part of Senator Karnes's problem is that he is barely an incumbent. GOP Gov. Kay Orr appointed him last year to fill out the term of Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D), who died in office. His opponent, meanwhile, has high name recognition and charisma.
As governor, Mr. Kerrey guided this farm state through rocky economic times and, on a more glamorous note, gained some national prominence for his relationship with actress Debra Winger.
Ernie Chambers, the state's flamboyant and only black state senator, has also entered the race as the candidate of the left-wing New Alliance Party. But Mr. Chambers is not expected to be much of a factor.
The contest in Nebraska's Second Congressional District could be even closer than the gubernatorial race. Rep. Hal Daub (R) vacated the seat to make an unsuccessful run for the Senate. Now, former state Sen. Peter Hoagland (R) is running neck and neck with Jerry Schenken (D), a pathologist.
North Dakotans face the prospect of a ``High Noon'' campaign-ad shoot-out on the airwaves of their local TV stations.
Republican state Rep. Earl Strinden is challenging longtime US Sen. Quentin Burdick (D) in a hotly contested race. Senator Burdick, who is 80, is running further ahead in the polls than some observers had expected.
One issue, as in other races here and around the region, is rural development. Mr. Strinden has proposed various tax credits, loans, and federal spending quotas to spur economic growth.
Mr. Burdick stresses his experience and ability to get things done. ``This campaign will be based on who can do the most for our state,'' says campaign director Ross Keys.
Democratic Gov. George Sinner is expected to win reelection against Republican Leon Mallberg, a businessman and antitax activist.
The state's lone congressman, Rep. Byron Dorgan, is favored to stave off the challenge of Republican business consultant Steve Sydness, who also stresses rural-development issues.
The US Senate race here promised to be hard-fought, but few political observers expected mudslinging like this.
Just after Labor Day, Republican challenger George Voinovich began airing TV spots that accused Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of being soft on child pornography. The attack was based on the senator's reluctance to support a wide-ranging bill that included provisions some experts said were unconstitutional.
Several Ohio newspapers condemned the ads. Ohio's other US senator, Democrat John Glenn, called it ``the lowest gutter politics I've seen in a long time'' in a TV ad of his own.
As the well-regarded mayor of Cleveland, Mr. Voinovich is well positioned to keep down Senator Metzenbaum's Democratic majority in northeast Ohio and take the big Republican vote in the rest of the state. But so far Voinovich has failed to dent the favorable populist image Mr. Metzenbaum has built in Ohio.
Hogs are a big item on the electoral platter here this year.
Ballot issues include a ban on corporate hog farming, stricter regulations and higher taxes on gold mines, a property-tax cut, and a measure to legalize gambling in the old Wild West town of Deadwood. ``Referendums seem to have taken precedence in public attention,'' says Bill Protexter, executive director of the state Republican Party.
The prospect of large-scale corporate hog farms moving into South Dakota became a hot topic for family farmers here, who would like to see them prohibited.
``The hog issue is going to cause some defeats,'' says David Kranz, a political columnist and city editor with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. The Democrats have fielded more legislative candidates than the GOP in a traditionally Republican state, and ``the Republicans are going to be able to see Democrats in the Legislature this time,'' he says.
Mining proposals are designed to stiffen requirements for restoring the Black Hills after strip mining. Opponents say current regulations are adequate and new ones will cost the state jobs.
In the one congressional race, freshman Democratic Rep. Tim Johnson is expected to win reelection over state Treasurer David Volk (R).
US Sen. William Proxmire (D) may get an urge to award his last ``golden fleece award'' for excessive spending in the election for his successor. ``We've never had such a media-, money-intensive campaign,'' says Evan Zeppos, a Milwaukee public relations consultant.
The frugal Mr. Proxmire spent several hundred dollars on his last two reelections. Democrat Herbert Kohl is spending his personal fortune to prove that he is above taking special-interest money, while making an issue of PAC support for his opponent, Republican state Sen. Susan Engeleiter.
Mr. Kohl, a former supermarket magnate who owns the Milwaukee Bucks professional basketball team, runs as a maverick opposing a ``career politician.'' He advocates higher taxes for the wealthy and a 10 percent cut in defense spending.
Ms. Engeleiter says she can draw on expertise honed in her leadership role in the Legislature to help bring down the federal budget deficit.
In US House races, attention is focusing on two Republican businesswomen who aren't expected to win but who are mounting strong campaigns. Ann Haney is emphasizing her antidrug stands in a rematch against longtime Democratic incumbent Robert Kastenmeier in the Madison area's Second District. Helen Barnhill, a black businesswoman, is a long shot against Rep. Jim Moody in the heavily Democratic Fifth District of northern Milwaukee.
Staff writer Marshall Ingwerson also contributed to this survey. Next: the South, Oct. 12.