THE US Senate race here could be likened to the 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match: an older, seasoned male pro, Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell, rallying against a snap-at-your-heels younger woman, Republican Rep. Claudine Schneider. At this point, Senator Pell appears to have the lead. A local television station poll taken last week had the Democrat leading Representative Schneider by 15 points. But some analysts expect the gap to narrow.
The Republican challenger is certainly engaged in a more active campaign. While Pell has stayed in Washington and is primarily using television ads to run his campaign, Schneider has been flying home every weekend to appear at gatherings from state fairs to Italian neighborhood festivals to the state convention of the National Organization of Women.
While Schneider does not sit on prestigious committees, she's been identified with the environment, energy, and women's issues. And according to Norma Willis, chairman of the state Republican party, Schneider has done more for the state than Pell.
``She's brought in people to help small businesses, the backbone of the economy,'' says Mrs. Willis. ``Last year, she walked in the West Providence neighborhood that was having a severe drug problem that residents felt was not being given enough attention. Once she was out there, all of a sudden the police got interested. And the neighborhood's improved.''
What Schneider is up against is a popular 30-year veteran of the United States Senate. Swept in with John Kennedy in 1960, Pell is seeking his sixth consecutive term. Born into a family with a history of public service, ``he has the kind of dignity that would produce a gracious response even if spat upon by Saddam Hussein,'' says one observer.
Pell chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-chairs the Senate Arms Control Observer Group, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Environmental and Energy Study Conference.
However, during the only debate between the two candidates, Pell did not have an answer when asked to name specific things he's done for the state. He asked viewers who wanted to know, to ``send in a postcard.''
``There was such contrast in their ability to handle questions, in their knowledge and command of the issues,'' says Robert Rendine, Scheider's press spokesman. ``Pell's performance brought up the question, Is he capable of being aggressive and competent for next six years?
But if debating helped Schneider rack up points, world affairs did the same for Pell.
``Two things have helped Pell,'' says Darrell West, associate professor of political science at Brown University. ``The Iraqi invasion, which shifted attention toward foreign policy. People see him as much more experienced with foreign affairs.''
``The other thing is the economy,'' says Professor West. ``People are pessimistic about it, and that's helped him. A struggling economy shifts attention toward a liberal Democrat, and few people around the country have a better record with programs that ease human suffering than Pell.''
Schneider is in a tough spot, says West. She can't lean too heavily on the age issue because Rhode Island is second in population of elderly next to Florida. Nor can she become too negative in the final days of the campaign since Pell is so popular. And she can't expect to run away with the women's vote, because Pell has been supportive of women's issues.
There are two similar races in which a Republican female representative is trying to unseat a Democratic male senator. In Illinois, Rep. Lynn Martin is challenging Sen. Paul Simon. And in Hawaii, Rep. Patricia Saiki has held narrow leads in the polls over Sen. Daniel Akaka.
Some Rhode Island voters are torn between Pell and Schneider. ``I'd like to vote for her; she's young and she's got drive,'' says Jim Stahl, who publishes a children's magazine in East Greenwich. ``But that might bring the Senate into Republican hands. That might prevent me from voting for her.''