In a warmly decorated Bethesda home, Rep. Constance A. Morella has gathered a group of women around an oval dining room table for an intimate chat. She speaks with passion of the progress of the women's movement, the challenges faced by working mothers, her work to help victims of domestic violence.

When the camera pulls back, the narrator of the television ad -- a woman, of course -- offers this assessment of the Maryland Republican's record: "Nobody fights harder for women than Congresswoman Connie Morella. Nobody."

Morella, an eight-term incumbent, has long made her work on women's issues and endorsements by feminist groups a cornerstone of her campaigns. But this year, as she runs against Democratic state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. in one of the most competitive House races in the nation, her you-go-girl rhetoric is far more direct.

Over the last four elections in Maryland's 8th Congressional District, women have averaged nearly 55 percent of the vote. They also have proved to be Morella's secret weapon, allowing her to negate what is otherwise a built-in advantage for her opponent in one of the most liberal and Democratic districts in the country.

This year, women's support will be more critical than ever. As Morella campaign manager Tony Caligiuri put it: "We're taking a gamble that among all the demographics trending away from her, we believe that women especially can be brought back."

Morella is in a unique and precarious position -- and sailing into a political head wind that is now a constant of American politics.

The gender gap first entered the political lexicon in 1980. That year, men broke heavily for Ronald Reagan, helping elect him president, and women later began shifting toward the Democrats. That trend has since hardened into a permanent Republican advantage among male voters and a Democratic advantage among female voters.

Further complicating Morella's challenge is that over the last decade, college-educated women have become one of the strongest of Democratic constituencies, and few districts in the country have a more highly educated electorate than Morella's.

Registration numbers underscore the problem she faces. Registered female voters outnumber men by more than 28,000, and 61 percent of those women are Democrats.

Nor can Morella count on men to offset her potential disadvantage among women, due to the makeup of the district, which now contains a sliver of Prince George's County along with most of Montgomery. Men in the 8th District are more likely to be Democrats and less likely to be conservatives than they are nationally.

Democrats believe that the voters are increasingly open to the partisan argument that a vote for Morella is a vote to keep her more conservative Republican leaders in power. Morella's opponent in 2000 used that argument, holding her margin of victory to its lowest ever, and the Democrats have made it a staple of their appeals this fall.

In Van Hollen, Morella for the first time faces an elected official who also has a strong track record on issues of special import to women, such as education, the environment and gun control. Van Hollen used those issues to target and win over women in the four-way Democratic primary last month, and his strategists vow that he will not cede that ground to Morella in the general election.

If Morella cites her endorsement by 10 feminist groups that include the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Van Hollen is right behind with his endorsement by the National Organization for Women, of which he has been a longtime member. Morella has the support of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Van Hollen counters with local leaders of the Million Mom March. Look at my record, he says. Listen to these women I've worked with.

Still, even Democratic pollsters say Morella's appeal among women is not to be underestimated. "With any other Republican, it's a no-brainer that they would vote Democratic," said Anna Greenberg, who surveyed the 8th District extensively on behalf of one of Van Hollen's vanquished primary opponents. "What's significant is her ability to speak to these voters."

A Woman's Issues She has spoken to them for the last 16 years, using her life story, a voting record that makes her one of the House's most liberal Republicans and her devotion to constituent service to create an overwhelmingly positive image in voters' minds.

The congresswoman some have described as Montgomery County's den mother describes herself this way: "a woman, a feminist, a mother, a grandmother and someone who has worked hard on education, child care, violence and abuse against women, poverty, AIDS and women's health care."

"The women's movement put the movement into me," Morella said.

Morella, a teacher who juggled work with raising nine children, six of them from a sister who died, got her springboard into state and later federal office when she was appointed to Montgomery County's first Commission on Women during the heyday of the equal rights movement.

Female elected officials are generally seen by voters as less partisan, and in Congress, Morella carefully cultivated the image of an independent. An unequivocal supporter of abortion rights, Morella also supports affirmative action and dissents from her party's opposition to stricter gun regulation. She seems to have taken to heart the advice of Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

"The best way for a female Republican candidate to get women's votes is to be a Democrat, and failing that come as close as you can to sounding like a Democrat," he said. "The gender gap in the preference that women have for Democrats is based primarily on the priorities women bring to politics."

One of Morella's ads skewers parts of Van Hollen's voting record and suggests that he is the real Republican in the race, and over the years, she has advocated legislative priorities with gender-based appeal.

Morella has pushed the National Institutes of Health to include more women in clinical trials and to pay more attention to diseases affecting women, such as ovarian cancer. For older women, she worked to make bone-density screening a benefit under Medicare. She fought to ensure that women took part in the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban, and she broke with President Bush in opposing his decision to cut funding for international family planning.

That record has helped Morella in past races avoid being swallowed by the gender gap that plagues many of her Republican counterparts. It's not that Morella has won the majority of female Democrats, or even more of them than men, according to her campaign. It's just that she has managed to pull enough of them along to make the difference and survive.

"There is a very, very modest gender gap in this race," said pollster Keith Haller, whose latest independent poll found Van Hollen running narrowly ahead of Morella with women and roughly even with men. "My strong surmise is that the gender gap here is smaller than almost any other competitive congressional race in the country."

No Easy Target Ralph Neas, who ran against Morella in 1998, remembers a repeated refrain as he campaigned door-to-door. "People would say, 'I've known her for a long time, and I think it's important that we have more women in Congress,' " Neas said. "Anecdotally, it seemed that gender was playing a factor."

This year, Morella loudly sounds the sisterhood theme. The campaign began with complaints by Morella that Democrats in Annapolis, among them Van Hollen, were trying to redistrict the "one woman" in the state's House delegation out of a seat. In an interview notable for its bluntness, Morella added, "I would never go into a district against a woman who was running, least of all a woman who was good on women's issues."

Wary of taking on such a popular woman, Morella's Democratic male challengers, up to and including Van Hollen, have unfailingly described her as "nice." Her take? "Unless they say 'nice and, man, does she get things done,' it can be patronizing. . . . They don't say that about a man -- 'Oh, he's so nice.' "

Over time, as women in office have become more commonplace, the novelty of voting for them has worn off. More and more, female voters are making their decisions based on issues rather than sex. In Michigan, Rep. Lynn N. Rivers lost the Democratic primary this year to fellow Rep. John D. Dingell, and exit polls showed that women were split evenly.

"A lot of women haven't come out of the primaries this year. Women voters have not been as eager to vote for women candidates as they have in the past," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

Consultants say that the conventional wisdom that you can't go negative against a female candidate doesn't hold true to the same extent that it once did, that voters aren't as protective of female candidates as they once were. That said, Van Hollen is careful to treat Morella with respect, mindful perhaps of the backlash created when Rick Lazio aggressively charged into Hillary Rodham Clinton's space during a televised debate in their 2000 Senate race.

Focus groups conducted by Van Hollen's campaign showed that men, particularly, were turned off by overt attacks on Morella: "They reacted like you had said their mother was a slut," said campaign manager Steve Jost. "We have to thread the needle -- convince people that it is time to give Connie her gold watch."

So Van Hollen mostly sticks to his priorities and record and an overt partisan appeal.

"If you care about these issues," Van Hollen said, "if you want to make progress on an agenda that is important to women and families, you aren't going to be able to do that until you have a Democratic leadership in the House."

Van Hollen Reaches Out Van Hollen has used virtually every opportunity since his primary victory last month to surround himself with popular Democratic lawmakers. On a recent evening in Chevy Chase, he appeared at a fundraiser with Hillary Clinton on one side and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the first female Democrat elected to the Senate, on the other. His daughter made the introductions, while his sons watched from the audience. Coming soon to a Metro stop near you: Van Hollen and a posse of female House members.

Van Hollen does nothing to disguise the importance he places on bringing home the women's vote. He has pushed the media to trumpet NOW's abandonment of Morella, arguing that it was worth more than a mere mention in the newspapers, then featured coverage of the endorsement in a television ad.

"The issues I've worked on in the legislature and stressed in the primary and now in the general, while those issues are important to everyone, they are of special interest to women and families," he said.

Then comes the litany of achievements: He gained passage of the first-in-the-nation integrated trigger lock law, an issue of particular concern to suburban women; authored a child-care tax credit; provided funding for more after-school programs; expanded health care access to low-income children in the state; fought to prevent oil drilling in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

For years, men and women generally voted alike, particularly before the advent of the women's movement and the entry of more and more women into the workforce. It was in 1964 that, for the first time, more women went to the polls than men, but it wasn't until 1980, with Reagan's election, that they began to vote differently: Men voted heavily for Reagan, while women were evenly divided between him and Jimmy Carter.

It was that year that political consultants began scratching their heads, according to Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority and the woman credited with coining the term "gender gap." Women were voting differently than their husbands, and they seemed to care about different issues.

Through much of the 1980s, it was the Republicans' dominance among men that often provided their margin of victory. Then, in the 1990s, women began moving more strongly toward the Democrats, drawn by the policies of Bill Clinton. Two years ago, women and men were mirror images of one another, with men supporting George W. Bush by 53 to 42 percent and women breaking for Al Gore by 54 to 43 percent.

Polls taken by both campaigns in the 8th District show that women and men view the election differently, and both Morella and Van Hollen have looked for ways to exploit those gender differences. For example, women are far more opposed to a war with Iraq than are men. But that issue may be a draw: Both candidates oppose Bush's plans.

Women, according to Morella's campaign, are more susceptible to Van Hollen's criticism of her vote to support Bush's $1.4 trillion tax cut. The best counter, her polls show, is to inform women that the tax cut reduces the marriage penalty, contains incentives to encourage adoption and provides a child-care credit. And to deflect attention from that vote, Morella includes in her TV ad the fact that she worked to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which her campaign has found is persuasive among female voters.

Van Hollen's campaign has found that, while the economy is the number one concern among all voters polled, education is tops with women, and it is a rare day when Van Hollen doesn't mention that he "worked with the PTAs" this year to pass the state's largest-ever increase in aid to public schools.

While Jost said women give Morella stronger overall effectiveness and approval ratings than do men, he believes they are more open to arguments about the importance of whether Democrats or Republicans control the House. Morella pollster Linda DiVall doesn't buy that, but Morella has tried to take that issue off the table by citing analysts who say Democrats will have a difficult time regaining the majority in November.

Like any other large demographic group, women don't move en masse, and both campaigns are burrowing down to try to find the female subgroups most predisposed to their respective messages.

Morella has targeted older women, who may have voted for her in past elections and therefore have a greater attachment to her than younger women or newer voters in the district. Her campaign advisers see them as a potentially rich pool of voters but acknowledge that she will have to work harder than ever to win the support of women who don't have that same sense of personal attachment.

Morella's polls also show her doing better with younger, less affluent women with children. In recent elections, Democrats have seen some erosion in support among white women who do not have a college education and are generally less reliable voters in midterm elections. Republicans are making more effort to appeal to them.

DiVall said Morella must "draw a contrast with Chris Van Hollen to show she's been more on their side than he has." In her ad, Morella tells viewers: "I have a taste of the challenges of women who want to work outside the home, or frankly, who have to."

Van Hollen's latest literature talks about how he juggles work, raising three children and coaching kids' soccer. Jost said that for Van Hollen, the targeting of women is a sort of "snooker shot," forcing Morella to spend time and money on the "fight to stitch her base back together" as the Democratic candidate is left free to mine other groups.

"We're fighting an all-front war," Jost said, then paused, then grinned. "White, suburban, office-park dads -- that's where we can really make life complicated for her."

But Van Hollen and Morella both know that if the Democratic nominee can peel away Morella's support among women, her route to reelection will be extraordinarily difficult.

"The women's movement put the movement into me," said Rep. Constance A. Morella, who started in office with the county Commission on Women.Christopher Van Hollen Jr. talks with Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, which used to support Morella but is backing him.