With an assist from Roscoe the dog, Eleanor Sharp pushes the "Ken Lucas for Congress" sign into the ground of her family farm, near Highway 421 in rural Henry County.
She and her husband, Kenneth, semiretired tobacco and cattle farmers, are worried about the state of Kentucky's congressional delegation: This year, for the first time since Andrew Jackson named the Democratic Party in 1828, the Bluegrass State could wind up with no Democrats representing it in Washington.
So the Sharps are backing Mr. Lucas, a conservative Democrat who is running against a conservative Republican named Gex (pronounced "Jay") Williams. They say he'll do a better job of defending tobacco farmers in Washington.
What they don't know is that the Lucas-Williams race is one of the hottest political contests in America, and that the entire Ohio River Valley has become Tossup Central. A land of cornfields and coal mines, horse farms and firm handshakes, this region offers an unusual view of the mood of the American electorate on the eve of the Nov. 3 election - and could be crucial in shaping who controls Congress.
With Republicans holding a majority in the House by only an 11-vote margin, every race counts. Neither the parties nor the activist groups that support their candidates are leaving anything to chance - particularly in a year when relatively few seats are "in play" and turnout is expected to hit record lows.
In the final 1-1/2 weeks of campaigning before the Nov. 3 elections, citizens will be pummeled with radio and television ads, direct mail, and phone calls. Nationally, and in some local races, Republicans have more money to spend.
Why has this swath of the nation - where the North meets the South, a region known for its rolling hills and Midwestern values - become a giant political battleground?
"It's an accident of history," says Al Tuchfarber, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati. "Normally, a lot of these are safe seats."
Retirements of longtime members - such as Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, and Reps. Scotty Baesler (D) and Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky, who face each other in a tight race for the Senate - have opened up House seats that have been solidly in one camp or the other. In other cases, newer members face challenges from strong opponents, such as the race between two-term Rep. Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio and popular Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls, probably the only Democrat in the district with the potential to unseat Representative Chabot.
The only true swing seat in the three-state region is Ohio's Sixth Congressional District, currently held by Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland but in danger of changing hands for the fourth straight election. Republican challenger Nancy Hollister, Ohio's lieutenant governor, has mounted a strong campaign.
This district, a sprawling rural expanse that covers southeastern Ohio, combines small-town Republicanism and, in its poorer parts, Democratic New Dealism. It's socially conservative throughout, but fiscally dependent on government.
Clintonesque echo in Kentucky
Education, health care, and taxes came up often in forums with voters in visits to several of the districts with close races. President Clinton's ethical problems hardly came up. And ironically, in the one race where integrity has emerged as the key issue, for Kentucky's Fourth Congressional District, it's the Republican, state Senator Williams, who's being compared to Mr. Clinton.
After much dissembling, Williams has admitted signing a false statement about a land deal, in addition to other alleged ethical lapses. And in a report last week, the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission slammed Williams with an oblique reference to Clinton: "Current events make it apparent that there are some in contemporary society who do not have a high regard for the sanctity of an oath," the commission's majority wrote. "Regrettably, Senator Williams appears to be among those people."
If last week was a dismal one for Williams, it was a great one for Ken Lucas, his opponent.
Last Friday, a new group called Republicans for Lucas held a fund-raiser, a posh affair in an elegant hillside home overlooking the Cincinnati skyline. The host, a Republican homebuilder named Ray Beil, has known Lucas for years. "I always vote the man, not the party," says Mr. Beil, a view echoed by many wealthy Republicans at the party.
Perhaps more important than the money raised was the show of bipartisan support for a man who, in many ways, is just as conservative as Williams. But for these 100-plus Republicans - including former Kentucky GOP chair Mary Fisher - it's Williams's style more than his ideas that makes him unsuitable for service in Washington.
In its endorsement of Lucas on Sunday, the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper blamed Williams for helping turn the Kentucky Senate into "a raucous pit of juvenile hissy fits."
Still, the district Lucas and Williams are vying for remains the most conservative in the state, and Lucas's election is by no means certain. If the old-line rural Democrats like the Sharps are Lucas's bread-and-butter supporters, Williams benefits from the spread of suburbia deeper into northern Kentucky and the influx of young families, many of them pro-life home-schoolers like Williams.
"There's been a big population explosion around here," says Mark Scherer, a landscaper and home-schooler whose daughter plays soccer with Williams's. "Fields I used to rabbit hunt are now houses."
Mr. Scherer and his wife support Williams's candidacy by baby-sitting for Williams's younger children. Last Saturday, while the Williams and Scherer girls played a match, Williams took a few moments away from cheering to press the flesh at a nearby march for life, where the crowd greeted him enthusiastically.
"Ken Lucas claims he's pro-life, but he doesn't match his words with action," says Patty Haubner, a mother of seven and director of a crisis pregnancy center.
Nonpartisan political analyst Stu Rothenberg calls the Lucas-Williams race a "pure tossup."
Across the Ohio River
To the north, in Ohio's First Congressional District, which encompasses Cincinnati and its northwest suburbs, Mr. Rothenberg calls the race between Chabot and Mayor Qualls a "tossup/tilt Republican."
On paper, that race should be a pure tossup, considering the even partisan breakdown of the district. But the challenge will lie in getting Qualls's voters to turn out. With a large African-American constituency, Qualls has had visits to the district from black notables such as Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee (which Chabot also serves on), Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, popular among African-Americans, have also passed through town.
Chabot, a conservative leader in Congress, can count on support from pro-life suburbanites, a strong constituency in a city that gave birth to the right-to-life movement.
At a forum Monday night in the suburban Finneytown school district, the assembled crowd seemed fairly evenly divided between the two candidates. But speaking after the meeting, a local couple expressed doubts that Qualls could unseat Chabot. "We put a Qualls sign up on our lawn, but we're surrounded by Chabot signs," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "I'm just waiting for someone to rip ours out."
Lee Hamilton country
To the west, in southeastern Indiana, lies Lee Hamilton country. The respected Democrat, who is retiring from Congress after 34 years, has given his blessing to the Democrat nominated to succeed him, former state Sen. Baron Hill, an all-American basketball star.
But in this conservative swing district - another rural, sprawling expanse, like Ohio's Sixth Congressional District - Mr. Hill is by no means a shoo-in. At a recent rally for Republican candidates in rural Delaware, Ind., local party activists questioned Hill's credentials on abortion and guns - two litmus-test issues in a region where the safe position is to be pro-life and pro-gun.
"Southern Indiana in general is boll-weevil Democrats," says Indiana political analyst Brian Vargus. "A lot of people say Indianapolis [to the north of this district] is the northernmost Southern city."
The Republican nominee, former state Sen. Jean Leising, appears to fit the bill in terms of her political positions. But Mr. Vargus suggests that her two previous, unsuccessful attempts to unseat Congressman Hamilton could work against her. Indiana voters don't give the same people too many chances to win a seat, says Vargus.
Still, the Republicans of Ripley County who held the rally in the town of Delaware, are excited about her chances. "How many votes will Clinton cost the Democrat? I don't know how many, but he's gonna cost some," says Donald Dickey, retired county GOP chairman.
This is the kind of region that is populated by farmers and former city folk - people who appreciate not having to lock their doors at night. But the new GOP county chair, Kenneth Copeland, says the days of unlocked doors are numbered, as suburban sprawl creeps outward from Cincinnati and Louisville.
Mr. Copeland calls Ms. Leising "a good farm girl." More than that, this onetime farmer's wife faced early widowhood with three small children and rose to become Indiana Farm Woman of the Year. The question is whether she can overcome Hill's advantage in fund-raising and the early perception that he would walk away with the race.
For both candidates, a big challenge will be getting their messages out. With close races all over the Ohio River Valley, the television airwaves out of Cincinnati and Louisville will be saturated between now and election day with messages from all sorts of races that have nothing to do with Indiana's Ninth Congressional District.