BRISTOW, OKLA., OCT. 31 -- When Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.) walked into the White Way Barber Shop here recently to find out what was on the minds of voters in Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District, he did not have to wait long for an answer.
"Taxes, taxes, taxes, taxes," said barber Norman Skaggs as he put the finishing touches on a customer's 1950s' era brush cut. "Put the taxes on the rich, Mike. Put it to 'em."
Synar, seeking a seventh term from northeastern Oklahoma, could not have asked for a better opening to put some Democratic spin on the $492 billion deficit-reduction package enacted by Congress last week. While the budget plan demands some sacrifice from everyone, Synar told Skaggs, it put most of the burden of higher taxes on the wealthy.
Thirty-five miles up Interstate 44, in the 1st Congressional District in Tulsa, Rep. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) also has been wrestling with the politics of the budget this week -- and wishing it would all go away.
Inhofe is a hard-line fiscal conservative who voted against the deficit-reduction legislation. His campaign for a third term has been slowed in part by the baggage that President Bush attached to many House Republicans by reneging on his no-tax pledge and by his agreement to a budget deal that includes $137 billion in higher taxes.
"Every one of them has brought up the budget," Inhofe said as he met voters at a downtown Tulsa mall. "I've been hurt. It's closed up a solid lead to a narrow lead."
While the reelection contests of Inhofe and Synar are likely to rise or fall, as most House races do, on issues closer to home, the months-long budget battle in Washington has lent an air of uncertainty to the two races.
Both men are running in a state where a rising tide of anti-incumbent sentiment already has washed ashore in the form of a 12-year term limit for state legislators that was approved earlier this year by 80 percent of Oklahoma voters. When that fervor is combined with clear public disgust over Congress's prolonged budget stalemate, it makes for a volatile political climate that has left even relatively secure politicians with a case of the jitters.
The prevailing attitude of Oklahoma voters, said W. Roger Webb, the president of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, is that the budget battle was "a national disgrace" that showed "Congress can't govern."
Such sentiment may be more pronounced in Oklahoma than elsewhere, but it is widespread across the country, according to some political consultants. House incumbents, they say, are finding a significant gap in their polls between the percentage of voters who give their lawmaker good job performance grades and those who favor the lawmaker's reelection.
"People who are not paying attention and think they are safe are going to suffer," said Democratic consultant Tom King. King is urging his clients to return to basics by reminding voters "what you've done for the district."
However, another Democratic consultant, Alan Secrest, said "recredentialing is not enough," and that incumbents have to show how they have cut across the grain in Washington.
Both approaches are being used in Oklahoma.
Inhofe is countering a vigorous challenge from Democratic lawyer Kurt G. Glassco, his 1988 opponent, in part by distancing himself from Congress. "That's the one great advantage I have," said Inhofe, a combative former Tulsa mayor. "I have no doubt they won't associate me with Congress."
Bashing the deficit-reduction package at every stop, Inhofe tells voters that Bush was badly advised by his staff and Cabinet and should have played hardball with a profligate Congress run by liberal Democrats.
Bush, said Inhofe, should have vetoed the budget bill, and forced automatic spending cuts to take hold until January when the president could have negotiated stronger spending reductions with a new Congress. Inhofe does not discuss the impact the automatic cuts would have on defense and domestic discretionary spending programs, including many critical to his district.
To reinforce his reputation as an outsider, Inhofe is running ads that picture him in front of the Capitol while denouncing what goes on inside. "You sent me here to clean up this mess, but it's worse than we thought," Inhofe says in the ad. "We deserve better than we're getting from the tax-and-spend crowd."
In contrast, Synar is using the budget package to underscore the message that he has been delivering for seniors, veterans and rural residents who need better access to health care. Democrats prevented Bush from imposing Draconian cuts on Medicare and higher taxes on the middle-income, says Synar, who does not mention that Democratic leaders in Congress also supported those budget summit proposals.
Though Synar's district has not gone Republican in decades, he won last summer's primary with just 56 percent of the vote, a scare that has put him on full alert. He is widely expected to win handily over Republican Terry M. Gorham, a management consultant, but in the face of Oklahoma's rebellion against career politicians, Synar is leaving little to chance.
Like many of his Democratic colleagues, Synar for the first time is doing daily tracking polls during the final week of the campaign and nervously watching the numbers. The polls show that many 2nd district voters, when reminded that Synar has been in office for 12 years, agree that it is time for a change.
"As volatile as people have been," he said, "someone could go on television late and, if he had enough money, really have an impact."