Locked in one of the toughest House races in the nation, GOP candidate Melissa Brown wasn't missing any constituent on a swing through a community barbecue here, not even 3-year-old David Brooks. When he reached for the campaign sticker on her jacket, she gave it to him - prompting a comment from his father that women candidates in the fight of their lives don't usually like to hear: "She's a nice lady."
The "nice lady but..." tag has worked as a put-down of women candidates in the past. "It's a subtle suggestion that women shouldn't hold this position," says Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
But the race for the open seat in Pennsylvania's 13th District is one of a number of national races where there's no gender card to play because both candidates are women. It's a sign of the coming of age of the women's movement in politics.
"I tell people right out: 'I'm running against a woman.' So anyone that wants to pick on gender, it's off the table," says Dr. Brown, an eye surgeon before taking up politics.
This year, a record 138 women have run for the US House of Representatives as major-party candidates, 57 as incumbents. In 11 districts, women are competing against other women, eight as incumbents, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
While no one is predicting another "Year of the Woman," as in 1992 when a record 39 women ran for open seats, the bumper crop of women candidates this year is expected to increase the number of women representatives, now at 60.
Moreover, most women aren't running as amateurs anymore. By any measure - from experience in government, to funds raised, to the professionalism of their campaigns - the class of 2004 is the most capable group of women candidates yet.
"The women who are running this year are tough as nails. These are women who know how to raise the money, put together the campaign operation, and have the political and constituent bases," says Karen White of Emily's List, a political action group that backs Democratic women supporting abortion rights. "In the early 1980s, women were the anomaly, the underdog. These are leading candidates."
Brown's Democratic opponent is Allyson Schwartz, a four-term state legislator, who led a tough field in her primary. Before entering politics, she helped found a women's health center in Philadelphia. Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) disclosed that it had spent $387,000 in mailings for the Schwartz campaign. Emily's List has put more than $767,000 into her campaign, including the primary. At the same time, the Republican Party has spent more than $555,000 on Brown.
"Allyson Schwartz is one of our premier candidates," says Rep. Robert Matsui (D) of California, the DCCC chairman. "She raised more than $2 million in the primary and $1.8 million in the general election. Republicans started an independent campaign against her [last week], but we're heavily in that race."
"It's significant that the Democrats have had to put so much money into a Democratic seat where Schwartz has raised more than $2 million," said Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R) of New York, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, at a Monitor breakfast Monday. He is not discussing GOP plans for the final days of this (or any) race.
Democratic hopes to take back the Senate hang on such candidates as Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina's superintendent of education, former Florida education commissioner Betty Castor, and Missouri Treasurer Nancy Farmer.
On the House side, Democratic attorney Lois Murphy is running a strong race against GOP incumbent Jim Gerlach in a suburban Philadelphia district that leans Republican. In another of the rare competitive House campaigns this year, Republican Nancy Naples, a three-term Erie County comptroller, is in a statistical dead heat with Democrat Brian Higgins in New York's 27th District. Democrat Patty Wetterling is challenging GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy in Minnesota. And newcomer Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D) of South Dakota is in a tight race to retain her seat in a state that President Bush is expected to carry handily.
But both parties are keeping a close eye on the Brown-Schwartz race, which ranks among the highest-spending in the nation. Brown has $244,000 on hand as of Sept. 30, according to campaign finance reports released last week. Ms. Schwartz has $330,000.
"It's the premier congressional race in the nation, because it's a rare open seat and they are the strongest pair of candidates," says pollster G. Terry Madonna of the Center for Politics and Political Affairs and the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College. Schwartz is leading Brown by 11 points in a recent Keystone poll. But heavy media buys in the campaign's closing days could shift those numbers.
The 13th District runs from ethnic restaurants of northeast Philadelphia to the antique shops of tony Montgomery County. While the district leans Democratic, Brown came within two points of beating Democratic Rep. Joseph Hoeffel in 2002. The three-term lawmaker is leaving the seat to run against incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (R).
In recent weeks, the Brown-Schwartz campaign has turned sharply negative on both sides. Brown is running a website called "RadicalAllyson," which declares the candidate "endorsed by Michael Moore" and "supported by Jane Fonda" has values too radical for the district.
For her part, Schwartz is attacking Brown's business ties to a doctor-owned HMO that was later sued by the state for fraud and conspiracy. Records of the 2003 settlement are sealed. "We think it's important that she disclose to the voter her full involvement in healthcare, which includes her role in the health-insurance company that was sued by the state for fraud and conspiracy," says Schwartz spokeswoman Rachel Leed. Recent TV ads and mailings also accuse Brown of "gross distortions."
"The race in the 13th is a two-fisted, knockdown brawl," says pollster Madonna. "There's nothing nice about it, whether you're a man or a woman. I don't see anyone standing on ceremony or gender."