A city-hall maintenance worker was among those who watched with elaborate boredom last week as television camera crews set up for a hearing on last November's still-inconclusive congressional race in Indiana's 8th District.

"Two congressmen -- no vote between the two of them," he said. "Hell of a country."

Up the road in Princeton, federal auditors searched the basement vaults of Gibson County's ornate 99-year-old courthouse for clues to who won.

Despite weeks of Washington debate, one state-directed recount and the federal recount now under way, the outcome appears as muddy as the waters of the spring-swollen Ohio River tributaries flooding low-lying fields and forests in this pleasant southwest corner of the state.

Was the victor Republican challenger Richard D. McIntyre, whose razor-thin margin has survived two state-certified tallies of the district's 233,000 ballots?

Or was it freshman incumbent Democrat Frank McCloskey? He maintains that errors and misjudgment by canvassers twice have cost him an election he actually won.

McIntyre initially was declared the winner by 34 votes by Indiana election officials. A state-certified recount raised that total to 418 votes. McCloskey refused to accept the results and took the dispute to Congress.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives refused to seat either and agreed to pay the $69,800-a-year salaries of both while the federal audit of the election proceeds under the auspices of the House Administration Committee. McIntyre has refused the salary.

Such direct intervention by Congress is unusual in the Republic's 208 years. It has touched off a bitter confrontation between Hoosiers and congressional Democrats. The dispute has drawn national media attention, rekindled the state's rights debate and exacerbated tense party relations in Washington.

But these larger issues and angers seemed remote last week from the Gibson County courthouse at Main and Broadway. Here, amid the folksy atmosphere of courthouse regulars, office workers and local party officials, 16 auditors on loan from the General Accounting Office toiled at cafeteria-style tables in a roped-off section of the courthouse basement, thumbing through piles of ballots.

While Republican and Democratic party observers from Washington looked on wearily, the auditors tallied thousands of votes to learn what had happened in one of the 15 counties that comprise the 8th, a district of farms and factories.

By the end of two days of recounting, the 15 auditors had found, in the bottom of a precinct lockbox, one ballot that apparently had never been counted either election night or in the later state-certified recount. In addition, ballots disqualified in the state recount were added to the new total, while questions arose about several other ballots.

In all, the new tally added nine votes to the margin McCloskey had rolled up in this normally Democratic county. The unofficial Gibson total stood at 8,613 for McCloskey to 6,410 for McIntyre. But questions about other ballots were still to be resolved

"The answer is, there is no answer," said James Meissner, the veteran accountant brought in from the GAO's Cincinnati office to supervise the recount. "Every county has a different way of certifiying its votes. And every county has a different system of voting."

The one thing that both sides agree on is that Meissner and his auditors have been "scrupulously fair," as Republican observer Steve Nix put it. Nix is Midwest campaign director for the national GOP election operation.

"I've lived in Indiana so long that I joined the Evansville YMCA," he said with a wry smile.

"They're going to name you man of the year," joked Bob Kelley, a Democratic staffer on the House Administration Commmittee and distant cousin of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). Nix, Kelley and others have been monitoring the dispute for months, spending their weeks in the district and commuting to Washington on the weekends when they can. Over the months, an easy camaraderie has evolved between the political adversaries. They stay at the same hotel here and work out in the same gym. This Washington-style friendliness sometimes leaves local partisans gaping.

"If we'd been paying more attention in the first place, this never would have happened," one local Democrat said. "But no one ever thought the Republicans around here really knew how to steal an election."

That mud is being slung in both directions. Steve Lotterer of the National Republican Congressional Committee said McIntyre refused the salary because "he was being paid for a job he was not being allowed to do . . . while the Democrats steal the seat."

In fact, the dispute is notable for the fact that there are no vote fraud charges -- only disagreements about which ballots should be counted.

Meissner said he expects to complete his recount by Friday. It will then be up to the House Administration Committee to decide whether to seat McIntyre or McCloskey -- or recommend a new election.

Some outsiders here say the federal recount is likely to end in a margin of victory of no more than "one or two votes" either way. If that happens, a special election is inevitable.

At that prospect, Nix and Kelley only rolled their eyes.