IN this year of surly voters and antigovernment fervor, many members of Congress are fighting for their political lives. Whether voters are venting their displeasure against incumbents or against the congressional teammates of an unpopular president, the effect is the same: Most of the lawmakers on the endangered-species list are Democrats.
But not all. In Massachusetts, politically cross-grained as ever, the most-threatened representatives are the only two Republicans in the Bay State's 10-member House delegation.
The vulnerability of the two GOP lawmakers is rather anomalous in a year when many polls foreshadow a Republican surge across the nation, as well as a year when, in Massachusetts, Republican Gov. William Weld seems headed for easy reelection and Republican Senate candidate Mitt Romney is mounting a serious challenge to Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Yet it's not wholly surprising that both Peter Blute in the 3rd congressional district (central Massachusetts) and Peter Torkildsen in the 6th district (the northeast part of the state) are in political dog fights. Both men captured their seats just two years ago in traditionally Democratic districts. Both beat Democratic incumbents who were under ethical clouds, so the Republicans may have benefited from protest votes.
The Nov. 8 balloting will reveal whether the two freshmen lawmakers, through their performances in office and frequent weekend trips back to their districts, have in just 22 months made the seats truly their own.
Eager to take back congressional seats and sensing that the newcomers' support is still fluid, Democrats have targeted the two races as high-priority, according to Susan Tracy, a Democratic legislator and state-party official in Massachusetts.
Both incumbents face aggressive and fairly well-funded Democratic opponents who triumphed in spirited primary elections. Congressman Blute is squared off with Kevin O'Sullivan, a state representative from Worcester, while Representative Torkildsen is pitted against John Tierney, a Salem attorney.
Blute and Torkildsen each starts with a strike against him: In both districts - mirroring the state as a whole - registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 3 to 1 (38 percent to 14 percent in the 3rd district, and 35 percent to 13 percent in the 6th).
``The races may turn on whether the voters in those districts return to their roots,'' says Joseph Slavet, a longtime political observer in Boston.
On the other hand, the largest bloc of voters in each district -
48 percent in the 3rd and 52 percent in the 6th - is ``unenrolled.'' Blute and Torkildsen are courting these uncommitted voters by emphasizing what they portray as their pragmatism, their political independence, hawkishness as budget cutters, and efforts to reform Congress.
While many Republican politicians across the country call these mid-term elections a referendum on the Clinton administration, Mr. O'Sullivan and Mr. Tierney are trying to handcuff their GOP opponents to another national leader: House Republican whip Newt Gingrich. Both Democratic challengers depict the incumbents as slavish followers of the combative and conservative Georgia congressman.
O'Sullivan and Tierney have chastised their rivals for joining other GOP incumbents and candidates who signed Mr. Gingrich's ``Contract With America'' on the steps of the Capitol last month. Nationally, Democrats have derided the ``contract'' - a pledge of actions Republicans will take if they win control of the House of Representatives - as fiscally irresponsible and out of the political mainstream. Tierney calls it a ``contract on America.''
Blute and Torkildsen counter that they are unafraid to defy their party's leaders. Blute stresses that he ``bucked the party'' by voting for the crime bill and a campaign-finance-reform bill and against the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Torkildsen, who calls himself ``a fiscal conservative and a social moderate,'' notes that he supports abortion rights and the rights of homosexuals. He also voted for the final crime bill, though earlier he stuck with the Republican leadership on a procedural vote that threatened to kill the legislation.
Paul Watanabe, a political-science professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, says Blute has been more successful than Torkildsen in staking a claim to political independence.
``Many people see Torkildsen as a tool of the Republican leadership,'' Dr. Watanabe says, pointing to Torkildsen's vote against a bill to ban assault weapons.
Watanabe, Mr. Slavet, and Lou DiNatale, a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute of Public Affairs at UMass-Boston, all agree that Torkildsen's position is more precarious than Blute's. But these experienced political observers also agree that both races are, as Mr. DiNatale says, ``too close to call.''
Voter turnout in Massachusetts could be high this year, especially given the excitement aroused by the heated battle between Senator Kennedy and Mr. Romney.
But observers aren't sure what effect that could have on the House races. In recent elections, voters in the state have been prodigious ticket-splitters.
``Massachusetts voters are likely to jump all over the ballot on Nov. 8,'' says Bill Vernon, executive director of the state Republican Party.