It looked like the Democrats' midsummer nightmare come true: Congress still in session two weeks before the Nov. 6 elections, bogged down in a budget fight with the White House, with President Bush dashing around the country blaming the Democratic-led Congress for the mess in Washington.

So why was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) smiling the other night as the Senate droned on for hours in desultory debate over the fate of the Pacific Northwest's spotted owl, with no end in sight?

Welcome to the Congress that cannot seem to say goodbye.

While some lawmakers in tough races are eager to get home to campaign, and a few have already gone, most members are in no hurry to leave town, even though Congress has never in the last 45 years stayed in session so close to an election.

Some have little if any opposition. "There's only a couple of dozen of us with close races. The rest don't care. They think they can sit back here and look statesmanlike," complained Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), who faces a tough reelection contest and is in a hurry to leave.

Even some with tough races appear to believe they are safer in Washington for the time being, or at least until Congress can claim to have resolved its budget crisis. "Here you can generate news where you're the center of attention . . . and you can stay out of harm's way at home," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who was reelected two years ago and is watching the show with detached fascination.

According to a dozen House and Senate members interviewed over the last two days, the turnabout tells a story of how the practice of politics has changed in recent years, often relegating candidates to marginal, largely decorative roles in the final stages of their own campaigns.

Moreover, Democrats have other, more partisan reasons for not rushing out the door. Nearly all Democratic senators in close races are being challenged by House

Republicans, who are similarly held hostage in Washington and probably need even more to go home because they are less well known and less handsomely financed.

There is also the perception in both houses, shared by some Republicans, that Bush is suffering more than the Democrats from

the budget wars, especially from the well-publicized recent strug- gle over how much to tax the

rich.

Instead of Democrats getting heat for the picture of govern- ment paralysis beamed nightly into America's living rooms, it is Bush and his Republican allies who

are bearing the brunt of voter disenchantment, many lawmakers say.

"People see every evening on the TV news that Bush won't make the wealthy pay their fair share," Harkin said. "The longer we're here the more sharply focused is the issue of who will pay the bill, and the better it is for me."

"Democrats correctly figure that staying here is hurting Republicans more than them," said Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.), who is retiring from Congress this year. "In my mind, this has been the worst two weeks for Republicans since Watergate, and I'm sure the Democrats figure that three weeks would help even more."

For most incumbents, regardless of party, the election was probably won or lost with fund-raising that hit its peak long ago. Moreover, the big war chests they built almost from the moment of their previous elections are financing campaigns being waged largely by professional managers and media experts. Campaign messages are conveyed to the public via canned advertisements rather than old-fashioned rallies and neighborhood visits that would require a candidate's presence at home.

"Most candidates have become professional fund-raisers, not candidates in the traditional sense," groused Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who doesn't like the new ways and fears that his constituents don't either.

When a live appearance by the candidate is required, satellite hookups and other high-tech marvels enable them to campaign from Washington almost as easily as they could from Kokomo or Keokuk. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), among others, has even debated via satellite and telephone hookup. He has faced his Democratic challenger, Paul Wellstone, twice this way in the past 10 days.

An incumbent also can use pressing business in Washington as a legitimate excuse to duck a debate that would only give exposure to a lesser known challenger and offer opportunities for gaffes by the incumbent. "It gives 'em an excuse not to show up at debates," said Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Tex.), who fears the tactic could back- fire by reinforcing challengers' charges that incumbents have lost touch with their constituents.

The angst is especially acute among House Republicans challenging Senate Democrats. Harkin's challenger, Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R), is using telephone hookups back to Iowa about twice a day, and his wife is campaigning full time. He also is using Bush administration surrogates, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and departing Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole.

But Tauke worries about not being in Iowa. "There are many things you can do from here, but you can't touch them and look them in the eye," he said.

While Tauke sees no overall scheme by Democrats to keep Congress in session to help their fortunes in the Senate, Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), who is challenging Sen. Claiborne Pell (D), sees a hidden plan. Democrats are "as interested in a secondary agenda as in the primary agenda of passing a budget, and that is keeping us here so they can keep the House and Senate Democratic," she said.

Some members would simply rather stay in Washington to avoid the voters, she said. "They are aware of the rage building up

at home and they don't want to face it," she said. "They think they will win just on being incumbents."

Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.) sees it in more personal terms. "Politicians like to be around happy people," he said. "People are not very happy out there right now. At least in this cocoon they understand your problems."