CONGRESSIONAL incumbents are having hard sledding in Vermont as elsewhere this year. But the threatened office-holders here are not the Democrats considered vulnerable elsewhere. They are a meticulously moderate Republican and a proudly left-learning Independent.
Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont acquired a higher profile in Congress over the past two years than during any of his previous 18 years as a representative and senator in Washington. He became a key swing vote on the health-care issue, his moderate tendencies at times aligning him with the Clinton administration. Mr. Jeffords's Democratic opponent this year, state Sen. Jan Backus, is pointedly asking what the incumbent has to show for two decades in Washington. This ``time for a change'' message is helping narrow the once gaping lead enjoyed by Jeffords.
For his part, Jeffords has counterpunched with ads calling into question Ms. Backus's commitment to fight crime. She has a long record as a civil libertarian and is considered vulnerable on this issue. This is fairly bare-knuckled campaigning by Vermont standards, according to Garrison Nelson, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont in Burlington. If the generally well-liked Jeffords is vulnerable on any count, it's his somewhat lackluster record in Congress, says Mr. Nelson. And the crime issue - regardless of Vermont's relative absence of violent criminals - may be the incumbent's best weapon against his female challenger.
``That's the new way men run against women,'' says Nelson, noting that the male tactic of choice used to be military preparedness. Jeffords is still the favorite, but he faces his toughest race ever this year, and it's ``tightening up,'' says Nelson.
The other congressional contest, for Vermont's sole seat in the House of Representatives, is equally competitive. Bernard Sanders, an Independent known universally here as Bernie, wants a third term in Congress. His opponent, Republican John Carroll, is majority leader in the state Legislature.
Jane Sanders, the incumbent's wife and chief spokeswoman for his campaign, describes Mr. Carroll as a typical Republican who wants government to step aside and let business have its rein - except for the occasional tax incentive. Mr. Sanders's view of government's role, she says, was illustrated by his recent efforts to block the takeover of the Vermont Central Railroad by a company that intended to lay off much of the work force.
The Sanders penchant for straight-talking populist politics has been a great strength, says Frank Bryan, another UVM political scientist: ``He's respected for his honesty. He doesn't defer to anybody for anything.'' That reputation for strident independence has sometimes won Sanders votes from the state's right as well as its left.
Sanders's biggest obstacle this year could be flagging enthusiasm among his supporters in the state who have heard his message many times before. Mrs. Sanders admits ``complacency'' is a big worry. But her husband is also having to contend with an articulate, well-financed opponent.
Mr. Carroll relentlessly underscores what he describes as overspending in Washington and the need to shrink the federal deficit.