They have done most of the nasty things two politicians can do in a campaign: call each other names, attack each other's reputations and wage one of the most bitter and expensive television advertising wars ever in the Washington area.
But Rep. Stan Parris (R) and Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr., a Democrat, agree on one thing in their battle to represent Northern Virginia's 8th Congressional District. In the end, their fighting words may not determine who wins the fight.
With next Tuesday's election looming, Moran and Parris campaign officials say the candidates face not only each other, but also a wave of voter disgust that has submerged congressional elections nationwide in uncertainty. Here, political activists say, public restlessness has helped make Moran the most serious threat to Parris, a six-term incumbent, in almost a decade.
The two have grappled over a series of emotional issues -- abortion, racism and personal conflicts of interest -- and Moran has raised more money than any previous Parris challenger. But analysts say none of those concerns has influenced the campaign as much as Congress's recently completed struggle over the federal budget.
Months of Capitol Hill bickering alienated many voters, and even Parris's advisers admit it hurt him. "Before the budget crisis, Moran was probably 30 points behind" in the polls, said Randy L. Hinaman, Parris's campaign manager. "You hear some sentiment toward Congress in general, 'What are these guys doing?' "
Both Moran and Parris say their polls show that Parris's lead has shrunk to about 10 percentage points, and some GOP leaders say the race is even closer. One sign of mounting concern is that President Bush is scheduled to appear at a fund-raiser for Parris in Fairfax County tomorrow.
Activists say that many Northern Virginia voters only now are beginning to look closely at the Moran-Parris contest, and that the political atmosphere is extremely volatile. "The outcome of this race remains in doubt," said Mark J. Rozell of Vienna, a political scientist at Mary Washington College.
Parris and Moran "have had difficulty getting people's attention because events in the Middle East and the budget crisis have taken on a life of their own," Rozell said. "But now that Congress has gone home, people are going to be making up their minds at the last minute."
The district that the two are vying to represent includes Alexandria and parts of three counties: southern Fairfax, eastern Prince William and northern Stafford. But the race's outcome will be felt beyond its boundaries. Parris is one of the region's highest-profile House members and is the most adamant critic of the District government among area representatives. Virginia Democrats have made Moran's campaign their No. 1 priority this fall.
Indeed, Moran has run one of the richest campaigns in the country by a non-incumbent. He already has collected almost $700,000 and expects to raise $900,000, outpacing Parris since Jan 1. Parris, traditionally one of Virginia's most prodigious fund-raisers, has collected $745,000 so far, including money left over from previous House campaigns.
Those stakes have allowed the two to run what appears to be the most expensive television campaign ever in a Washington area election. Though neither began airing commercials until two weeks ago, Moran aides estimate he will spend $350,000 on ads. Parris aides estimate he will spend more than $300,000. Parris also is spending $35,000 on radio.
Both sides' commercials have been witheringly negative. Moran attacked Parris's opposition to abortion rights with pictures of women behind bars, contending that Parris once threatened to jail women who get abortions. Parris denied making the remark, and retaliated by hammering at Moran's conviction on a conflict of interest charge.
Off screen, the campaign has been equally vitriolic. In August, when Moran questioned the United States' confrontation with Iraq, Parris compared him to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. Moran called Parris "a deceitful, fatuous jerk" and threatened to punch him. Just last week, Moran called Parris a racist, and Parris angrily accused Moran of McCarthyism.
The crossfire appears to have taken a toll on both men. Aides say that in both campaigns' polls, both candidates are viewed negatively by more than 30 percent of the district's voters, a relatively high level of public disillusionment.
Both men, however, have strong political bases. Parris started in Fairfax County politics more than 25 years ago, and has skillfully used the advantages of incumbency, such as free mail, to make himself a local fixture.
He also has capitalized on his pugnacious political approach, frequently jousting with District officials over a range of issues. "Stan has a tendency to tell it like it is, and people know that," said Randy L. Hinaman, Parris's campaign manager.
Moran, who has a strong, though smaller, following in Alexandria, has stumped hard throughout the district and has employed his knack for making news. During his tenure as mayor, Moran has led highly public crusades to crack down on illegal drugs in public housing and to establish a city clinic that distributes contraceptives to teenagers.
"Jim is a fighter," said Mame Reiley, Moran's campaign manager. "Sometimes he will say things that we wish had been a little more diplomatic. But he works hard and he stands for something."
Both sides also agree that Moran benefited from the federal budget clash. Parris was forced to choose between two key constituencies: federal workers, who repeatedly were threatened with lost paychecks, and conservatives who opposed new taxes. He voted with the conservatives, opposing all the budget proposals.
Moran, by contrast, endorsed the final budget agreement, saying he could support some new taxes if they were used to reduce the deficit. But he has not raised the issue in his advertisements, hoping to avoid being labeled a tax-and-spend liberal.
No one is sure exactly how the final week of the race is shaping up. One possibility, the worst case for Parris, is an anti-incumbent backlash that would generate an unusually strong turnout for Moran. Another is that many voters will feel so fed up that they stay home, yielding a small turnout and uncertain results.
Turnout is expected to be relatively light because no other high-profile races are on the ballot. Both campaigns say that, in this atmosphere, their get-out-the-vote organizations could play a decisive role. Moran's aides claim an advantage there, saying they expect as many as 1,000 volunteers to work for them on Election Day.
"We're dealing with public frustration," said Rozell, the political scientist, "and it's difficult to predict the effect it will have."