Connie Morella is perched up on a plank of scaffolding that looks none too secure, pounding nails into strips of vinyl siding on a new house. There's a little too much wobble in the hammer for this to be her day job.
"It makes you realize how much time goes into building a house," says Ms. Morella, whose real-life career is crafting federal laws as a Republican congresswoman from a decidedly liberal district.
The eight-term lawmaker (and mother of nine) is one of the best-known faces in Montgomery County, an upscale Maryland suburban district just north of Washington - and not just because her constituents have seen her on TV.
Many know her personally, from visits to factories and county fairs - or helping to build this rare new affordable-housing unit in this high-priced suburb. To keep her job, she has had to learn her home turf from the ground up - and vote that knowledge.
While that has put her to the left of some Democrats - and would have prompted her to cast a vote for Democrat Al Gore if last year's disputed presidential race had been thrown into the House of Representatives - it has not made her a pariah in her own party.
With a six-seat margin of control in the House, the GOP leadership can't afford to throw anyone off the boat these days. And her colleagues know she's headed into the fight of her life in the 2002 elections. Analysts are already predicting that the race for this seat will be one of the most competitive - and costly - in the nation.
"Whenever you have such a slim margin, it elevates the importance of any group of four, five, or six House members," says Sarah Binder, congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
With margins this close, both Republicans and Democrats are advising their House members to stay close to views in their districts when they cast votes this session.
"My role is to get the House back. My advice to members is to go with conscience and constituents," says Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Congresswoman Morella is one of only four House Republicans who voted against President Bush on energy policy as well as on a key amendment on patients' bill of rights. She also opposed the president's faith-based initiative, which she dubbed "a slippery slope" that could jeopardize the constitutional separation of church and state. She was one of four GOP representatives to vote not to impeach President Clinton on all counts. Her vote for Mr. Gore, had it come to pass, would have been out of respect for the views of her constituents.
When Congress returns next month, she will join other moderates in trying to force the GOP House leadership to put campaign finance reform back on the floor for a vote. And she is leading opposition to the new White House proposal to provide federal funding for stem-cell research only under limited conditions.
All these positions are consistent with the views of her suburban constituents, many of whom work for the federal government or in the new biotech firms that, until recently, have been flourishing along the beltway. These voters backed Mr. Clinton in 1986 and delivered an even higher (60 percent) vote to Gore in 2000.
It's also a constituency into which Republicans will have to make greater inroads in order to hold the House in 2002.
"Since the Republican takeover in 1994, Democrats have made gains by picking off people who voted too conservatively for their districts. The ones who survived in districts like Connie Morella's were the ones who figured out that you vote with your district," says Amy Walter, congressional analyst for the Washington-based Cook Report.
Morella's signature issues resonate with voters, especially women, in the nation's suburbs: education, the environment, gun control, equal rights and opportunities for women, domestic violence, and abortion rights.
"I got into politics because I was issue-driven. I think that's typical of women. In my generation, a woman ran for office because of issues, not so much a seeking of power," says the former schoolteacher.
Morella makes a point of not being a maverick. She says she respects the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and likes to work from the inside.
She warns party leaders when her votes won't be to their liking. And to those in her party who may take a negative view of her and GOP moderates, she points to achievements that arguably have pushed the party into positions with stronger national appeal. President Bush's compromise on patients' rights and greater emphasis on conservation in his energy strategy are two recent examples. "There is much more understanding, tolerance, respect given to differences of opinion in our party. It's been an absolute necessity. When you're that close, you have to look to your moderates," she says.
Democrats are already targeting Morella's seat as one of the most vulnerable in the 2002 campaign. Potential foes include big-names like state delegate Mark Kennedy Shriver and popular state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen.
In addition, state Democrats control the redistricting process - and may split the district to increase the number of Democratic voters. It's a prospect Morella says she opposes: "Dividing the district in half to accommodate the people who are running instead of the people in the district is an outrageous abuse of power. It fails to recognize the integrity of Montgomery County. It Balkanizes us."
But she insists she is not scared of facing a Kennedy - with the resources and media attention that name brings.
"I'm not afraid of another Kennedy.... And this one is the age of my son," she says. "No one is invulnerable.... I think the best thing is to just do my job."