Eleanor Lurensky has voted for Rep. Constance A. Morella every time the Maryland congresswoman has run for office. She is a retired teacher, just like the woman who has represented her for 16 years. She is also a Democrat, one of those crossover voters in Maryland's heavily Democratic 8th District who have made Morella, a liberal Republican, an institution as well as an anomaly.
Morella and her challenger, Democratic state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., have two days to woo crucial undecided voters such as Lurensky. But after an intense campaign in which the candidates have spent millions of dollars, the most expensive House race in Maryland history and one of the most closely watched contests in the country may come down to a single issue: Party.
Lurensky is getting all kinds of pressure from friends and neighbors who tell her to vote for Van Hollen. And while she has always liked Morella and her attention to constituents, the 70-year-old Bethesda woman confesses that partisan loyalty may sway her this time.
"My friends are telling me I have to pay attention to who controls the House. That's what has me wavering," Lurensky said. "But I don't really know how effective [Van Hollen] can be as a freshman."
Morella's advisers figure she can win Tuesday only by pulling every single Republican vote, a sizable number of independents and a little over a quarter of the Democrats in her district, which spans Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The latest polls show the two candidates in a statistical dead heat.
But if a late Friday afternoon canvass of this neighborhood in the incumbent's home precinct is any indication, Democrats are digging in. Unscientific though the survey may be, nearly two dozen interviews yielded not one past Morella Democrat who has decided definitely to vote for her again.
It's not that voters here believe the two candidates are far apart on the issues. Rather, Democrats are voting against the leadership of Morella's party, particularly President George W. Bush.
Rochelle Leach, 59, blames the president for the economy and is furious over the Iraq war resolution passed by Congress. No matter that Morella voted against giving Bush the power to wage a preemptive strike, Leach feels comfortable with Van Hollen, the first candidate with a lengthy record of his own to challenge Morella.
"I hate to do it because I really like her," she said of her vote for Van Hollen, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats here. "But we have no choice. She really -- I mean, why is she a Republican? I know she's a moderate, but then they don't really have any power anymore."
Though Morella is having trouble with Democrats like Leach, her status as one of the House's most vulnerable Republicans has fired up her party's base. There are the loyal boosters who have known Morella since her early days on the Montgomery County Commission on Women. Then there are the pragmatists, who may not agree with Morella on some of her more liberal stances but know she needs their vote now more than ever.
"She's basically a Democrat," said Tun Wai, a 42-year-old consultant. "But she's the best fit for the district, and as long as she's in the House, that's fine."
Registration numbers in the 8th District closely track those in Morella's home precinct, illustrating the daunting task she faces as she seeks reelection in a race that will help determine whether the GOP retains its House majority. After the 2000 census, state lawmakers redrew the district's boundaries to make it even more Democratic. Today, Democrats make up 55.48 percent of the electorate, Republicans 25.4 percent, and independents and others 19 percent.
Along the quiet streets of this Bethesda neighborhood live the well-educated, famously independent-minded Democrats who have helped Morella survive in what should be hostile territory. This is the base that first sent Morella to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978.
But two years ago, she lost her home precinct by a hair. This fall, she has spent much time trying to shore up support here, going door to door yesterday while volunteers fanned out to invite residents to a free chili-and-beer party.
This area is very receptive to Morella, campaign manager Tony Caligiuri said. "These are proven crossover voters who don't buy in blindly to a partisan message."
The precinct proved a stronghold for Van Hollen in the Democratic primary; he swamped his closest rival here by 26 percentage points. His camp also sees the area as critical. If Democrats can be brought home in Morella's backyard, the thinking goes, how can he lose?
Morella repeatedly downplays the national import of the contest, citing analysts who believe the GOP will hold House control. Her television ads remind voters of her years of service to them and urge them to vote their "conscience," not their party. The dual message seems to have resonated, but not enough.
Susie Zimmerman, 40, a Democrat who twice voted for Morella, is going with Van Hollen. "I want the Democrats to be in control," the marketing director said as she unloaded groceries. "I know it's unlikely to happen, but that's the dream."
A number of voters described the private anguish that has accompanied their decision-making.
Ellen Gillis, an independent, calls Morella a gracious woman who has taken courageous stands against GOP leadership. But she's leaning toward Van Hollen in part because she doesn't like Bush. She feels guilty about her change of mind.
"I've supported Connie in the past because I like her positions, but also because she's a woman, and I feel it's important to support women candidates," Gillis, 72, said as she took her daily walk down Landon Lane.
Pollster Keith Haller, who has surveyed voters in the 8th District, said Morella's support among Republicans and moderates has expanded this year. The critical question, he said, will be whether Morella can pick up Democrats in less liberal areas to the north to make up for erosion in her home base.
"I still believe that if she gets 30 percent among Democrats, given the support she is getting from Republicans and independents, she can still get to the magic number," Haller said.
With so little time left, how to reach those critical undecideds like Lurensky? The Van Hollen campaign hopes to break Morella's bond with voters by persuading them that she has changed, pointing to the attack ads she is running for the first time. But Lurensky, like several voters, has not been swayed by either candidate's expensive media assault.
"They're not influential," Lurensky said. "I think it's a sorry state of affairs to even have these ads."