Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella presents herself as a singular figure along the campaign trail this fall. One television ad features five Democrats singing her praises. Another asks whether her opponent, state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., one of the Maryland legislature's most liberal Democrats, is the real Republican in the race. And a brochure claims that "Connie doesn't represent a party, she represents us."

But appearances can be deceiving. That brochure touting Morella's independence was actually written and paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee. And the ads trumpeting her support from Democrats were paid for in part with funds raised with the help of President Bush.

At the close of what has been an extraordinary election in Maryland's 8th Congressional District, the strongest theme to emerge turns out to be the striking contrast in the candidates' view of political parties. On many issues -- abortion, guns and the environment -- Morella and Van Hollen are in general agreement. On the role of political parties, they could hardly be more different.

There is no ambiguity in Van Hollen's approach. His bumper stickers and yard signs shout out his Democratic affiliation. Television ads funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee cast the choice as one between competing priorities of the parties: "The National Republican Party is attacking Chris Van Hollen because he's fighting their agenda."

But whether openly embraced, as Van Hollen has done, or purposely unmentioned, as Morella has tried to do, the Democratic and Republican parties are playing an enormously important role in this and other competitive races across the country.

With independent voters the fasting-growing block in American politics, it has become fashionable to dismiss the importance of political parties. To some, parties are dinosaurs, nearly extinct creatures left behind by the breakdown in institutions, mobility, choice and expressions of individual freedom.

But that overlooks the role parties really play in American politics, and never more so than in the final weeks of a competitive campaign like the titanic congressional battle between Morella and Van Hollen. Both candidates have relied on the financial support of their parties and will benefit from the parties' statewide get-out-the-vote operations on Tuesday. And both have drawn from the advice, research and experience of some of the most experienced consultants in either party.

The Morella-Van Hollen race has been rich with themes and undertones, from its implications for the balance of power in Washington to the generational contrasts between a revered and longtime incumbent and a talented and ambitious younger challenger.

For 16 years, Morella has deftly appealed to her prosperous and highly educated constituents' sense of independence; the heavily Democratic voters for decades have prided themselves on putting partisanship aside and electing liberal Republicans. Morella has coupled an appealing personality and reliable constituent service to blur her connections to a national Republican Party whose leaders' ideas clash sharply with the district's liberal priorities.

Van Hollen, the first challenger Morella has faced with a lengthy legislative record of his own, hopes to sever the connection between the incumbent and her district with an appeal that is almost the exact opposite. He promises to go to Congress as a proud Democrat to fight the agenda of Bush and the Republicans who have controlled the House for eight years.

The outcome will help to determine not only which party controls the House of Representatives in January but also the issues that will dominate the national debate for the next two years.

The way these two candidates have chosen to run their campaigns, and the skill and vigor with which they have pressed their arguments, turned the race into a personality test of the district itself. On Tuesday, the voters in portions of Montgomery and Prince George's counties that compose the newly drawn district will reveal something of their own character.

Is this a place where the politics of independence and the power of personal affection for a longtime incumbent remain the dominant characteristic? Or, with a Republican president in the White House and Republicans fighting to retain their hold on the House, is there a Democratic personality struggling to emerge in one of the country's most progressive suburban district?

Party Vs. Conscience Two years ago, Morella won with just 52 percent of the vote against a relatively unknown opponent who poured more than $1 million of his own money into the argument that the incumbent helped the GOP keep its slim majority in the House of Representatives. Morella was caught off guard.

"It was like this clock ticking away -- six seats, six seats, six seats," Morella recalled. "I just didn't think it would resonate the way that it did."

This time around, her campaign knew, she could not afford to let the issue of party affiliation go unaddressed.

She began by contrasting her own independent voting record to the "partisans" in the Maryland General Assembly like Van Hollen who this year redrew her district's lines to make it more Democratic than ever before.

Next, she moved to take the issue of House control off the table. She repeatedly cites political analysts who believe that the GOP will remain in charge, suggesting that voters who care about that issue -- and a significant portion do -- needn't feel bad about picking a moderate like herself with access to the party in charge. "I don't want voters to feel guilty for doing the right thing," she said of this tactic.

Instead, they should feel guilty themselves if they don't do on Tuesday what they've admired about her for years: putting "principal over partisanship."

"My opponent says vote your party," Morella says in a new television ad. "I say vote your conscience."

On the stump, she tells voters that she has worked "day and night" on their behalf for 16 years, and she's not above chastising individual voters who are wavering. Recently, Morella received a letter from a constituent thanking her for her service and apologizing profusely because he found himself unable to support her this year. She immediately picked up the phone. "What are you doing?" she asked. "Are you trying to ventilate your conscience?"

For those who remain unconvinced, there is Plan B. This involves convincing Democrats particularly that Van Hollen doesn't deserve their vote. For the first time since taking office in 1986, Morella is running ads that go after her opponent. In some, she uses the words of Democrats to question Van Hollen's character. In others she questions his commitment to Democratic ideals.

But avoiding clear-cut party distinctions is a difficult and delicate undertaking, given the attention national Republicans have showered on the race. Just this week, first lady Laura Bush made a rare fundraising appearance for Morella at a private home, raising $150,000 on top of the almost $400,000 her husband helped raise earlier this year. Those two events alone account for about 20 percent of Morella's $2.7 million total.

Everyone from the candidate to the president of the United States is complicitous in promoting her independence as a way to preserve the party's power, even as she turns to its establishment to raise money and disseminate her message.

So it is that the Republican Party, with its antiabortion platform, is underwriting the cost of telling voters about Morella's endorsement by Planned Parenthood. If Morella needs to publicly distance herself from her party's more conservative gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., so be it. And when the host of a recent fundraiser in Potomac threatened to cancel after Morella opposed Bush on the Iraq war resolution, the White House itself got involved, insisting that the event go forward.

Cabinet secretaries await her instruction as to whether an appearance would help or hurt. She chooses carefully, preferring Republicans with independent standing such as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Morella is so sensitive to her constituents' disdain for conservatives that she only reluctantly acknowledged that she would endorse a Republican speaker next year. But party leaders have no problem with Morella's refusal to embrace them.

At a bill signing Tuesday, President Bush pulled Morella aside for a hug.

You're going to win; you're going to win! he said, according to her campaign.

"I think so, with your help," Morella politely responded.

No, no, I know your district, the president replied. I'm a burden, but you're going to win anyway.

Party Assistance The sun had just broken through the clouds and on the campus of Montgomery College, Van Hollen was surrounded by Democrats. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes were there, as were members of the County Council and lawmakers from the Maryland legislature. Flanking Van Hollen in a show of solidarity were his three rivals from the hard-fought primary.

Townsend, in the midst of her own tough race for governor against a candidate who is reaching out to independents and Democrats, made a partisan appeal: "I think it is time for us to all be Yellow Dog Democrats," she says. The reference is to an old Democratic commitment to vote for a yellow dog before voting for a Republican.

Van Hollen was not the favorite of the national Democratic Party establishment in his primary campaign. National Democrats leaned toward Del. Mark K. Shriver, a nephew of president John F. Kennedy and one of the most prodigious fundraisers of any candidate running this year. But when Van Hollen upset Shriver in September, the party establishment instantly rallied behind him.

Since then, he has appeared at events with former vice president Al Gore, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), former Texas governor Ann Richards, and Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.), Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.), John Lewis (Ga.) and John Conyers Jr. (Mich). This weekend he will appear at a Democratic get-out-the-vote rally and later a fundraiser with former president Bill Clinton.

Saturday night, Otto and Jeanne Ruesch, who supported Shriver in the primary, hosted a Chevy Chase fundraiser for Van Hollen that included Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. The only other speaker was former Clinton administration official Stuart E. Eizenstat, who supported lawyer Ira Shapiro in that primary.

All told, the party's elite has helped Van Hollen raise nearly half of the $1.6 million he has collected since the primary, his campaign said.

Unlike Morella and Ehrlich, Van Hollen and Townsend are openly touting their cooperative drive to turn out the Democrats in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, particularly black voters, that each will need to win their close races.

"Democrats know what's at stake in this election and wanted to rally behind us to get it done," Van Hollen said.

Van Hollen, for the most part, has shied away from directly confronting Morella because of her personal popularity in the district. But he is blunt as he speaks to audiences in the district about what he says is the difference between someone who generally votes her constituency and an elected official who would be willing to challenge the agenda of a Republican president and Republicans in the House.

"We need someone who doesn't just push the right button but who takes on the Republicans and who takes on the administration," he told one audience in a tree-shaded back yard in Silver Spring.

And if Morella hopes to distance herself from her party's conservative wing, Van Hollen is doing all he can to tie her to it.

When his campaign got ahold of an e-mail in which House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's aide asked for volunteers to help turn out the vote in Maryland, it issued a news release declaring that it was the "latest tactic in long string of Republican activities to keep control of the House." His supporters happily wave around a new state GOP mailer that features Morella talking about "my good friend Bob Ehrlich."

Such tactics prompted Morella campaign manager Tony Caligiuri to declare this week that the Morella campaign knew nothing of DeLay's or the state party's actions, and he ruefully added that Republicans are "killing us with kindness."

Van Hollen is careful, however, not to make the election simply a choice between Democrats and Republicans. Knowing that many 8th District voters are independents or ticket-splitters, he also tries to appeal to them, aligning himself with the causes and passions of progressive interest groups, from Million Mom March organizers to local environmentalists.

If Morella's appeal is to woo voters individually, Van Hollen's strategy is to make the causes of others his own.

Van Hollen's unity strategy has its limits, however. On two of the biggest issues facing the Democratic Party -- Iraq and taxes -- he is out of step with Gephardt, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and others.

He opposed the resolution giving Bush authority to go to war, unilaterally if he chooses, against Iraq and he favors rolling back some of the $1.4 trillion tax cut that Bush championed and Morella supported. Gephardt and Daschle have kept the tax issue off the agenda this fall and both voted for the Iraq resolution.

Van Hollen said he is disappointed with his own party, saying that on issues like taxes and war, it has become too timid in challenging Bush and the Republicans. "On some of these issues, the party has not been as outspoken as it should be," he said, adding, "These are arguments we can win if we stand up and make the argument."

But he dismisses suggestions that he and Morella are alike in having significant disagreements on issues with their party leaders. "I'm not embarrassed that the Democratic Party is supporting me in this race, and therein lies the difference. Congresswoman Morella is running away from her party."

Changing Directions Whatever 8th District voters ultimately make of those arguments, by the race's conclusion they will see both parties spend an unprecedented amount of money and effort to woo them. Already, they have dumped well over $3 million into issue ads alone above and beyond what the candidates have spent, and that sum is rising by the day.

What makes the choice between Morella and Van Hollen so difficult for many voters is that, despite the role the two parties are playing on behalf of the candidates, Morella's record and her list of endorsements do help to blur the distinctions and perhaps diminish the significance of party.

She again won the endorsement of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, whose leaders openly talk about the importance of helping Democrats win control of the House but were unwilling to abandon someone who has been a friend and ally. The same holds for the Human Rights Campaign, whose leaders say Morella showed support for gay and lesbian issues even before many Democrats did.

Morella's support from traditionally Democratic groups underscores her argument that she is not afraid to part company with her own party leadership. Moderate Republicans, she argues, have played an important role in American political life and it is essential to keep that tradition alive.

Van Hollen sharply disputes the implication that she has helped to soften the edges of a Republican Party that has moved steadily to the right over the past decade. Twenty years ago, he said, moderate Republicans had a real voice in Congress, particularly in the Senate, when Republicans like Sen. Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland played significant roles.

"That is absolutely not the case today in the House of Representatives," Van Hollen said. "I have challenged anyone to show me where Congresswoman Morella has had any moderating influence on Tom DeLay or where she has changed the outcome."

But while he asserts that he would be a more effective legislator than Morella because he is more in tune with his party, he may have limits. It is not clear, for example, that he could convince his own party -- driven by southern and rural interests -- to push for tougher gun control laws. Nor is it obvious how he alone can turn around the leadership of his party on rolling back parts of the Bush tax cut.

Morella is more than happy to point out such divisions. "He says he's going to be a good Democrat and that's what we need," Morella said. "Forget the fact that Dick Gephardt and [Rep.] John D. Dingell [D-Mich.] don't agree with him on everything."

Van Hollen prefers to keep the focus on Morella, however. As he campaigns across the district, he argues that the help the incumbent has received this year from Bush and the national party committees will make her even more indebted to her party leadership. A reelected Morella, he contends, will be less likely than ever to buck her party, particularly on issues of great importance to the president.

Morella expresses outrage over any suggestion that she would sell her vote for political help. "I've never owed anyone in the past, and after 24 years in elected office I'm not about to start now," she said. "Remember how I voted on Iraq. I've always been independent."

Van Hollen is betting that 8th District voters are ready to express themselves in more partisan terms than they have done in the past. But to get there, he will have to persuade enough voters to break what has been a powerful personal connection to an incumbent who describes her relationship with constituents as a political "love affair."

It's no coincidence that Morella's lawn signs feature a single word, "Connie," in her own handwriting.

"It's personal," Caligiuri explained. "This is a person. This is someone you love. You certainly tell the pollsters that, and you tell it to her face. The way we are posing the question is, 'Are you going to fire Connie Morella from her job?' "

Previous installments in this series can be found at www.washingtonpost.com.

While Van Hollen embraces his party, Morella has used GOP money to buy ads that distance herself from hers.Democrat Ruth Buckley, center, stuffs envelopes for Morella, whose strong record of constituent service ameliorates her Republican affiliation. Sandy Marks and Jim Sweet listen to a campaign speech from Van Hollen, who has asked voters to consider the national implications of the race.