The big decision sort of crept up on Linda Ropp, a mother of four and beauty-salon owner in York, Pa.
"I'd been threatening to run for a long time, and one day my customers said, 'Stop talking and do it!' " recalls Mrs. Ropp, who works six days a week at her home beauty parlor.
So Ropp took the plunge, challenging long-serving GOP Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania and joining a broadening spectrum of Americans campaigning for seats in Congress.
From computer engineers to ex-convicts and actors to animal-rights activists, this year's candidates for the 435-seat House of Representatives come from all walks of life.
Over the years, unconventional candidates like Ropp have nudged Congress toward greater diversity, not only in occupational breakdowns, but also in terms of gender, race, and social class. And as these candidates slowly filter into the House and Senate , they have helped create chambers that more accurately represent the people who elected them.
"[Today] there are a lot of people coming from a much more diverse background than lawyers and former elected officials," says Amy Walter, who watches the House for the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
Like Ropp - whose experience includes Girl Scouts and study at the Empire School of Cosmetology - few of the offbeat contenders are expected to win. But Ropp still represents something of a trend in modern politicking: Fewer candidates today have law degrees.
In the 1950s, the House of Representatives was dominated overwhelmingly by white, male attorneys. It was not until 1979 that the percentage of lawyers in the House dropped below 50 percent. Since then, the size of the briefcase bunch has shrunk steadily - reflecting in part a yawning gap between the earnings of private-sector lawyers and the salaries of members of Congress.
In contrast, the contingent of businesspeople and bankers has held steady or increased. After being roughly one-third of House members since the 1950s, the proportion of entrepreneurs jumped in 1995 as the GOP took over the House. It reached 42 percent in 1997. Today, for the first time, businesspeople (who are more likely to be Republican) outnumber lawyers (more often Democrats).
The rise of entrepreneurs in the House reflects an interesting - and increasingly wealthy - batch of candidates who draw on their own resources to fund campaigns. Campaign-finance reform in the 1970s restricted contributions and "put a premium on being able to underwrite yourself," says Charles Bullock, a Congress expert at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Vying for a seat in this election, for example, is Republican Randy Hoffman, a millionaire businessman who founded Magellan Systems, the world's first and largest manufacturer of global positioning satellite navigation systems. Mr. Hoffman has spent more than $450,000 of his own money in an expensive bid to unseat Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California in the Los Angeles area. Meanwhile in North Carolina, textile heir Robin Hayes is favored to capture the Eighth Congressional District for the GOP.
Aside from the big blocs of attorneys and business owners, the House regularly has a smaller group of educators (40 to 70), a dozen-odd journalists, and a handful of physicians. This year, the lineup of challengers includes nine doctors and dentists, six professors (including a Princeton physicist), and two each of teachers, TV anchors, and radio commentators.
Beyond these broad categories, the contenders for House seats are a hodgepodge of people with strikingly different backgrounds and beliefs. Here is a sampler:
William "Bud" Walker, an apple farmer and radio-station owner, is one of the few candidates with agrarian backgrounds. Farmers, who until the 1960s made up 12 percent of the House membership, now represent only 5 percent.
Mr. Walker, who manages his family's fourth-generation apple orchard in Clintondale, N.Y., is running a tight race against Democratic incumbent Maurice Hinchey in New York's 26th Congressional District.
Lydia Spottswood, an emergency-room nurse and mother in Kenosha, Wis., is locked in a tossup contest for the state's open First Congressional District. Mrs. Spottswood, who has received strong backing from a national pro-choice group, has a chance of becoming the first female House representative ever elected in Wisconsin.
Women now constitute 12 percent of all House members. But seven states, including the reputedly progressive Wisconsin, have never sent a woman to Congress.
Gary Hofmeister, an Indianapolis jeweler, is one of an array of people with unusual occupations running for House seats in Indiana. Joining him as contenders in the Hoosier State are airline worker Samuel Hillenburg, stockbroker Dan Holtz, and bottled-water company president Mark Wehrle.
On the more bizarre side is Bob Kern, an ex-convict and former gas-station attendant who shocked Democratic Party leaders when he won the primary to challenge longtime GOP incumbent Rep. Dan Burton in Indiana's Sixth Congressional District.
A handful of activists are running this year. Fathers'-rights advocate Eric Bleicken, a Vietnam veteran and divorced father of three, is on the ballot in Massachusetts. In Texas, there is Sidney Blankenship, an animal-welfare worker who claims two degrees from Oxford University in England.
Finally, the prize for the yuppiest race goes to the college town of Boulder, Colo., where mountain climber and state Rep. Mark Udall, son of former US Rep. Morris "Mo" Udall (D) of Arizona, is running against restaurant and brewery owner Bob Greenlee.
Asked why he chose to run, Representative Udall's answer are predictably off-beat.
"This is a big mountain I've tried to climb," says Udall, who describes his door-to-door campaigning as "urban hiking." "I've spent a lot of time outdoors, and I did it in the context of making the world a better place."
As for hairdresser Ropp, she seeks to represent the everyday American. "Working people should have a voice in Congress, and we definitely don't have that," she says. "We just sit back and pay the bills."