A race to fill a vacant U.S. House seat in New York has turned into a referendum on the Republican plan to overhaul Medicare. Above, Republican Jane Corwin, left, and Democrat Kathy Hochul are among the candidates in the race. (Derek Gee/AP)

Special congressional elections tend to be sleepy affairs, campaigns so condensed and out of step with the normal political calendar that they’re often missed. But they can be mirrors of the national moment, too, and that’s what’s happening in the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester, where a race to fill a vacant U.S. House seat has turned into a referendum on the Republican plan to overhaul Medicare.

Sensing an unexpected opportunity for a Democratic rebound from last year’s losses, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) flew here Sunday morning and moved from table to table at the Family Tree Restaurant, hovering over eggs, sausage links and pancakes to deliver a simple message.

“If you care about Medicare and want to keep Medicare as it is, she’s your person,” Schumer, the Democrats’ message man in Washington, said as he introduced diners to Democrat Kathy Hochul. “Her opponent wants to just dismantle it.”

At the next table: “If you’re gonna have Medicare one of these days, she’s fighting to keep it.”

And the next: “Her opponent will change it so you wouldn’t even recognize it.”

Jack Davis, right, a tea-party-backed independent, is also in the running. (Gary Wiepert/AP)

This, Democrats believe, is how Hochul just might do what seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago: win in one of the nation’s more inhospitable places for Democrats.

This is also the formula Democrats plan to use next year, when Republicans will face voters for the first time after backing a plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that would turn Medicare into a private voucher system.

Changing Medicare, the centerpiece of Ryan’s plan, is deeply unpopular across the country, according to public polls. The backlash to it in this economically struggling district, where registered voters are older than the national average, has turned an unusual three-way race into a dead heat.

Thus, what happens here ahead of the May 24 election will set the terms for both parties’ campaign playbooks heading into the 2012 battle for control of the House and Senate.

Aware of the stakes, the national parties have poured money into the race, outside groups are flooding local airwaves, and Democratic and Republican leaders are taking an active role.

Ryan recently sent a plea to his supporters to raise money for Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, the Republican candidate. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) hosted a fundraiser for Corwin here. And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) appeared at a Hochul fundraiser in Manhattan on Friday night.

‘A line in the sand’

Corwin said that she would have voted for Ryan’s budget and that Medicare needs to fundamentally change if it is to remain solvent.

“If you don’t do this, Medicare is going to go bankrupt by 2024,” Corwin said in an interview. “If we ignore it like Kathy Hochul wants to do, it’ll run out of money. . . . Actually, she’s the one who’s advocating for eliminating Medicare because she’s saying don’t do anything.”

Diane Few, 56, a Republican, said she is worried about any cuts to Medicare benefits but would vote for Corwin. “If you just listen to the newscasts, she’s going to delete Medicare,” Few said. “But I trust her. I sure hope it’s not true because I’m getting up there.”

Hochul, the Erie County clerk, said overhauling Medicare is “a line in the sand” that she would not cross. Instead, Hochul wants to eliminate corporate tax loopholes and raise taxes on income of more than $500,000.

“That resonates with people struggling in this district and the small businesses in Main Street who don’t think they’re getting a fair shake,” Hochul said in an interview.

The third candidate, tea-party-backed independent Jack Davis, said he would have voted against Ryan’s budget because he wanted deeper spending cuts and does not support overhauling Medicare.

Corwin had been the heavy favorite to win the seat left vacant by Rep. Chris Lee (R), who abruptly resigned in February when a shirtless photo that he took of himself and e-mailed to a romantic interest on Craigslist surfaced on the Internet.

But Corwin has been hamstrung by Davis, another multimillionaire self-funder who appears to be siphoning off Republican votes. A late April poll by Siena College showed Corwin leading with 36 percent, followed by Hochul at 31 percent and Davis at 23 percent. One week later, a survey commissioned by the liberal Web site Daily Kos showed Hochul leading Corwin by four points.

That Hochul is viable is surprising. In 2010, tea-party-backed Republican Carl Paladino carried this district with 61 percent of the vote despite losing the governor’s race in a landslide.

A political sideshow

An intramural fight between the Corwin and Davis campaigns has devolved into a sideshow fit for the downstate tabloids.

On Wednesday, Corwin’s chief of staff, Michael Mallia, went to a Davis event featuring veterans and badgered Davis, a 78-year-old Marine Corps veteran. Davis said the aide called him a “coward” and, with his camera rolling, Davis shoved the camera and threatened to punch Mallia.

Corwin said she neither authorized the act nor disciplined Mal­lia; she said he was acting on his personal time.

Asked in an interview what he thinks of Corwin, Davis said: “At a fundraiser, she’s very smiley, quite beautiful and very social. But as a congressman, she will not be fighting for the working men and women of this district.”

Davis’s campaign manager, Curtis Ellis, was more blunt. “She’s a Barbie doll,” Ellis said in an interview. “She’s a talking-point vessel. They just fill her up with words and she spits them out.”

As if the race needed more of the bizarre, Donald Trump weighed in last week. He preemptively blamed any Corwin loss here on the Ryan proposal. “She’s having a hard time defending that whole situation with Medicare,” Trump told reporters in New Hampshire. “The Democrats, you talk about demagogue, are doing a number on that plan unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

On Saturday morning, Hochul visited a 19th-century meetinghouse in the quaint village of Williamsville to remind a few dozen female supporters what’s at stake in this election for Medicare.

Janice Dunne, 73, a Democrat sitting in the front bench, said she remembered before Medicare became the issue in this election. It was shortly after the Ryan budget passed, and Hochul was holding a small fundraiser.

“I said, ‘Kathy, you’ve got to talk about this Ryan plan,’ ” Dunne said. “And Kathy said, ‘Janice, the commercial’s coming out tomorrow.’ ”