On a chilly October morning, Fran Drainer was the picture of a torn Fairfax City voter.
Tied to her daughter's stroller was a purple "John Mason for Delegate" balloon. On the breast pocket of her windbreaker was a blue and white "David Bulova for Delegate" button, referring to Mason's Democratic opponent in the race to represent Virginia's 37th District in the House of Delegates.
"Tough choice," said the 38-year-old mother of two who called herself an independent. As for the purple balloon and the blue button she'd been given at the Fairfax City Fall Festival, she added: "I know both these gentleman. Both of them would make a fine politician. Frankly, I may just decide to flip a coin on this one."
Such is the delegate contest in the topsy-turvy 37th district, a swath of Northern Virginia that includes Fairfax City and parts of Fairfax County. It pits two well-known figures of the district: Mason, the former mayor of Fairfax City, against fresh-faced David Bulova, 36, the son of veteran Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova. It is David Bulova's first delegate race. Veteran Libertarian candidate Scott McPherson is also seeking the seat.
All three hope to replace Del. J. Chapman Petersen (D), who campaigned unsuccessfully for his party's lieutenant governor's nomination in June instead of seeking a third term in the House.
The showdown between Bulova, an environmental consultant, and Mason, a longtime transportation analyst, sets two moderates against each other in a district that has toggled between Democrats and Republicans in several recent elections.
Petersen beat longtime GOP leader John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. -- first in 2001 and then in a rematch two years later. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) carried the district in 2001, but so did former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, this year's Republican gubernatorial candidate. President Bush won the district in 2000, but in 2004 John Kerry took the district, whose borders had been slightly redrawn.
For these reasons, the race has been targeted by both parties. With several close contests across the state, Republicans are looking to secure a presence in Northern Virginia's inner suburbs.
Democrats -- with an ambitious goal of picking up three seats on Tuesday -- say they need to hold the seat they swiped from the GOP in 2001.
Unlike in most House races this fall, both men have generally agreed on many issues in their district and have similar plans to solve them. This is largely because Mason has avoided tying himself too closely to the state Republicans' ideological base on social and tax issues.
He has expressed support for the budget and tax package pushed through by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) with the help of 17 Republican delegates last year. He says he does not support Kilgore's plan to cap real estate assessments as a way of stemming real estate tax increases, saying it would rob localities of the flexibility they need to pay for schools and services. Although he says that he "dislikes" abortion, he "is sworn to uphold the law of the land."
Instead, Mason, 70, who lost a reelection bid in 2002 after 12 years as mayor of Fairfax City, has talked up his experience as a regional transportation analyst. For years he served on the boards of several regional transportation boards.
Each time he campaigns, he reminds voters of his long background in the city. As he campaigned at a fall festival, he walked around tossing rubber "stress balls," asking if attendees were flummoxed by traffic. ("John, we miss you!" was a common refrain throughout the day.)
"I didn't come into this from the ideological perspective. I came into this for the 'let's get the job done' perspective," he said in an interview. Yet while he has stressed his independence from GOP anti-tax and social-issue orthodoxy, he has suggested that he'll be able to work more effectively in the legislature because he is a Republican.
"I'm ready to start on day one and will be part of the majority party," he said.
Meanwhile, Bulova has sought to talk up his hometown roots and sell himself as the future of the district, a theme that effectively worked for Petersen when he unseated Rust. He often talks about running a "grass-roots" campaign to reach out to new voters in the district, who, like him, have young families.
He has talked about his allegiance to Warner's successes and generally runs a campaign to convince voters that he would help improve the district's overall "quality of life." Like Mason, he rejects the idea of real estate assessment caps, saying tax increases can be leveled off if the state adequately funds services required of localities.
But Bulova says that regardless of Mason's moderate credentials, he will still be part of a Republican majority that will be unfriendly to a district that Bulova sees as trending Democratic.
"He still will be voting with the Republican majority. . . . He'll be voting for the leadership of a party that has not been good for this district," he said in an interview. "That could wind up hurting the city and the district."
In the same way that Mason is running on his own name identification, Bulova will likely be a beneficiary of his mother's longtime service and father's roots in the community. As he worked a crowd during the city's annual festival, several family friends came up to wish him good luck.
"I ran into your father a few days back and he said, 'Make sure you better vote for my son, or I'm never talking to you again,' " said Tom Bovis, a district resident, who used to coach soccer with Bulova's father. "So I said, 'Well, he's got my vote.' "
Internal polls for both parties suggest the race is essentially tied. The latest finance reports show largely the same: According to the Virginia State Board of Elections, as of last week, Bulova has raised $361,000 to Mason's $344,000, which could make for one of the most expensive races in Virginia this fall.
David Bulova's supporters call him the district's future.