The ballots will be cast Tuesday. The winner will join the innermost circle of the Capitol's power elite. The candidates have been on the hustings for months, raising funds, courting votes, promising better jobs and longer weekends, more effectiveness and greater vision. For the 55 Democratic senators of the coming 101st Congress, the election of a new Senate majority leader is fraught with significance.
Each of them will cast secret ballots for one of three contenders - Sens. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, and George J. Mitchell of Maine.
The winner will then take his place with the Speaker of the House, Jim Wright (D) of Texas, as leader of a loyal Democratic opposition against a Republican president with an uncertain mandate and an as-yet undefined agenda.
Even more to the point, the new majority leader will set the Senate's agenda, scheduling legislation and leading the Democratic charge for or (more likely) against a presidential initiative. Consequently, the next majority leader will play a large role in determining the sort of Congress President-elect George Bush will face next year.
``The Democratic agenda was fairly well established in the election,'' says Senator Johnston. ``So the real question is who can translate that platform into reality.''
That's one question. But others may loom larger.
It is nearly impossible for outsiders to delve deeply into the inner politics of the Senate, so entangled are they in the web of personal relationships that form among senators.
Indeed, the mysteries surrounding the majority leader election are such that the process has been likened to the selection of a new pope.
But, like voters everywhere, it is clear that senators electing a new majority leader are motivated not just by questions of policy, but of personality, and not just of personality, but of friendship and favors - what some might label old-fashioned vote-buying.
``The first question most senators think of when somebody asks for their support is, `What have you done for me lately?''' says one senator who, like most of his colleagues, spoke about the race only on the condition of anonymity.
``The kind of campaigning that's going on around here is the kind of campaigning that was supposed to have gone out with Tammany Hall,'' he says.
All three candidates have worked hard, for example, to get jobs for those who might vote for them.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1986, Senator Mitchell is thought to have collected numerous political IOUs from colleagues grateful for his success at raising funds for Senate candidates. That year, Democrats picked up eight Senate seats from the Republicans and recaptured the majority after six years in the minority.
Mr. Mitchell continues to raise money for others, and has been known to send bundles of checks to candidates and colleagues.
Johnston and Senator Inouye, meanwhile, set up political-action committees during the last election cycle and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic incumbents and challengers.
``There are 55 of us and so there are 55 sets of questions as to why Senator A will vote for Senator X,'' says Mr. Inouye. ``One senator is going to vote for a candidate because their wives are close; they play tennis together. Another said, `I'm going to vote for Senator X, because he fought hard for my project.'''
All three candidates have tried to appeal to their colleagues on the basis of reason as well as political loyalties, if only because none can muster up a winning majority through political loyalties alone.
``Quality of life'' has become the buzz phrase of the year, as the candidates promise to improve working conditions and make the Senate more efficient.
The candidates have tried to bring supporters on board with promises of power-sharing: Inouye speaks of appointing the runners-up to the leadership positions of Democratic caucus secretary and deputy president pro tempore; Mitchell, in an apparent appeal to Southerners inclined to support Mr. Johnston's bid, talks of asking Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen of Texas to give the Senate's response to President Bush's first State of the Union address.
The three have also promised to shepherd into place a newly collegial approach to Senate policymaking.
Rumor has put Johnston and, more recently, Mitchell, in the lead. But in fact, no one really knows who will win.
Counting votes in the clubby world of the Senate is tricky business, and all three candidates say they have enough votes to survive the first round of balloting, despite the fact that only two candidates can make it to a second and final round.
Running to lead the Senate majority Daniel K. Inouye (D) of Hawaii
Born: Sept. 7, 1924, Honolulu
Education: U of Hawaii, AB 1950; George Washington U, JD 1952
Political career: Hawaii Territorial House, majority leader, 1954-58; Hawaii Territorial Senate, 1958-59; US House, 1959-63.
Senate posts: Democratic conference secretary (Senate's No. 3 post); chairman, Senate Iran-contra committee, Select Committee on Indian Affairs; member, committees on Appropriations, Commerce, Science and Transportation, Rules and Administration.
George J. Mitchell (D) of Maine
Born: Aug. 30, 1933, Waterville, Maine
Education: Bowdoin College, BA 1954; Georgetown U, LLB 1960
Political career: Maine Democratic chairman, 1966-68; Democratic nominee for governor, 1974; appointed to US Senate, May 19, 1980
Senate posts: chairman, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, 1984-86, member of Senate committees on Environment and Public Works Committee, Finance, Governmental Affairs, Veterans' Affairs.
J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana
Born: June 10, 1932, Shreveport, La.
Education: Attended Washington and Lee U, 1950-51, 1952-53; attended US Military Academy 1951-52; Louisiana State U, LLB 1956
Political career: Louisiana House, 1964-68; Louisiana Senate, 1968-72; sought Democratic nomination for governor, 1971.
Senate posts: chairman, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; member, Budget Committee, Appropriations Committee, and Select Committee on Aging. Source: The Almanac of American Politics, 1988