Last year, before 9/11, before talk of a war against Iraq, before she knew whom she'd face in next month's election, Rep. Connie Morella ushered me into the Congressional Women's Reading Room and pointed to a portrait of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress.

Rankin, a Republican elected from Montana in 1916, "is the only member of the House to vote against both world wars," Morella said. "I have a feeling it was easier to be a moderate Republican back then."

Today, Rankin stands in Statuary Hall over her famous words: "I cannot vote for war."

In 1991, Morella was one of three Republicans in the House to vote against authorizing the first President Bush to go to war against Saddam Hussein. This month, Morella was one of six Republicans to oppose a similar request by the second President Bush.

No one is erecting a statue of Connie Morella. It's questionable whether Maryland's 8th Congressional District will even reward her with a ninth term.

In an era when political parties aren't supposed to matter very much, at a moment when the nation is divided almost equally between red and blue, in a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic, the main issue in the battle between Morella and challenger Chris Van Hollen is . . . party.

The candidates, begged almost daily to delineate their differences, hem and haw. Van Hollen tries to carve out a place as the one who's more honest about the need for taxes, and Morella poses the distinction as one of experience. But in the end, as Van Hollen said of guns, "I'm not sure if we have big differences in our positions."

Van Hollen, a state senator from Kensington, argues that Morella's progressive positions don't matter as long as she's under the thumb of right-wing Republican leaders. Elect me, he says, and Democrats might take over the House.

Nice dream, Morella responds, but indications are that the GOP will hold the House. Wouldn't it be better to be represented by someone who shares your views, but has seniority and relationships with Republican bosses?

Ask Morella why she's a Republican, and she revs up the time machine and talks about Jacob Javits, Mac Mathias, and John Lindsay. Remember those liberal Republicans of the 1960s? We'll not see their ilk again.

Ask again why Morella, who opposed impeaching Bill Clinton and drives a hybrid gas-electric Toyota Prius, is a Republican now, and she offers a few quick words about "opportunity and hard work." Then she talks about how her party "has veered to the right."

The sad thing about this race is that someone has to lose. All over Montgomery County, voters of both parties lament the low-rent campaign for governor. People are disgusted by the slimy attacks, the unwillingness of either candidate to face up to the state's fiscal woes.

Those same voters are proud to have a choice between Morella and Van Hollen, refreshed to hear candidates speak knowledgeably of war and transportation, the economy and the Middle East.

What people love about Connie is that she's Connie: She remembers their faces, sends those Christmas cards. Often enough, she votes her conscience, breaking with her party.

What people like about Van Hollen is what his TV slogan says, that he's the candidate "for people who care about issues," a winning line in this most wonkish of districts. Like Morella, he occasionally breaks with his party on matters of principle.

How to decide? The campaigns don't help, especially Morella's bewildering, seedy TV ad that somehow accuses Van Hollen of posing as a Republican.

Maybe it's a matter of timing. Ira Shapiro, who came in third in the Democratic primary, says that when he decided to seek Morella's seat, "I didn't think she was going to run again. She has a wonderful personal story. She has the right position on many issues. People say to me all the time, 'She's done so much for us.' " That's a Democrat speaking.

Morella won't call this her last race, but friends do. That's reason enough for voters like Jeanne Doonan, whom I met at the Women's Community Club of Kensington, to stick with Morella, even as she votes for Kathleen Townsend for governor. "Connie is wonderful," Doonan says, "and she's kind of independent, too. So am I."

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