Republican Jane Corwin, left, and Democrat Kathy Hochul, participate in a debate at the WGRZ studios on Thursday morning, May 12, 2011. (Derek Gee/AP)

To hear Democrats tell it, this surprisingly close race is a direct rebuke of House Republicans’ budget plan authored by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — and, in particular, his proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program.

Republicans counter that the narrowness of the race in a district that GOP candidates have generally won with ease is the result of a well funded third party spoiler — millionaire Jack Davis — spending millions to pull votes away from Republican Jane Corwin.

Both factors matter, but there’s another reality that’s been largely overlooked — that Hochul is simply a stronger candidate than Republican Jane Corwin.

Hochul is a far more experienced politician and campaigner than Corwin. She started her career as an aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the most admired politicians in New York history.

She was elected to the Hamburg Town Board in 1994 and as deputy Erie County clerk in 2003. She took her current post in 2007. She’s been methodically raising her profile in the area since at least 2010, including a giant re-election “thank you” billboard on the southbound Niagara Thruway after her last win. (Corwin, by contrast, has served only one term in the state assembly, winning an overwhelmingly Republican open seat in 2008 and running uncontested in 2010. )

Hochul is known for her indefatigable campaigning ability. “She is sweet, she is earnest, she kind of embraces her wonkiness,” said Jim Naughton, a former reporter who worked on student campaigns with Hochul at Syracuse University. “She’s a good campaigner, but she does that by being not the least bit slick.”

Hochul has the Western New York accent of her would-be constituents. While Corwin has attacked her for voting to raise taxes as a member of the Hamburg Town Board, the town isn’t even in the district and Hochul was hardly an outlier. She has tangible, local accomplishments to point to — for example, fighting the Democratic governor on new license plates. She also broke with then Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) on license plates for illegal immigrants — and got a write-up in the New York Times for it.

“Candidates matter more in congressional special elections where there is far more press attention than in a general election, and Kathy Hochul has proved a vastly superior candidate to Jane Corwin,” said Steve Murphy, a consultant on Hochul’s campaign. “She’s in the upper echelon of candidates we’ve worked with.”

Hochul has shown an opportunistic side in the race as well. She quickly seized on Corwin’s embrace of the Ryan budget and has managed to avoid getting into a debate over spending cuts. And, when one of Corwin’s staffers was hit by Davis while filming him on the campaign trail, Hochul, in a debate, said that she would have fired the staffer.

"This seat is a tough one for a Democrat, and only a really solid campaigner could make it happen,” said Jess McIntosh, deputy communications director for EMILY’s List. The group, which backs Democratic female candidates, endorsed Hochul in April — before polls showed the race to be close. “We saw that in Kathy."

Moreover, Corwin has a background that puts a distance between her and her would-be constituents. The 26th is a rural, middle-class district hit hard by the decline of the manufacturing industry; Corwin is worth somewhere between $58.3 million and $158.8 million.

“The sense I’ve gotten from talking to some people up there is that the Republican has not been able to connect with people as well,” said one GOP operative. “She’s a little too smooth, a little too polished.”

Added former 26th district Rep. Tom Reynolds (R):“[Corwin has] had a challenge with her media capturing her personality and her strengths as a state legislator and what her vision is coming to Congress.”

Some Republicans argue that Corwin is still the better candidate, noting that she was able to unite crucial party lines and fund her own campaign.

“Everybody agreed from the [National Republican Congressional Committee] to the leadership in the House to the state party that she was the right candidate, and she was,” said Bill Paxon, a Republican who represented this seat in the 1990s. “She was the candidate who got the Conservative and Independent [Party] endorsements and put over three million dollars of her money into the race and ran an excellent campaign on the ground.”

This race has become as national as a race can — Bill Clinton just weighed in — but candidates always matter. In an eight-week sprint to the finish line like this one, they might matter even more.