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Race of the Decade: Dead Heat

State legislatures are almost evenly divided between the GOP and Democrats. Coming election may swing balance.

Ken Paust sprints up the driveway, rings the doorbell, and plants a wide Hoosier grin on his face.

"Hi! I'm Ken Paust and I'm a Republican running for the state legislature," he announces, handing over a brochure.

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As the Nov. 3 election approaches, this is where the shoe-rubber hits the road: door-to-door campaigning in one of the closest races for a seat in the Indiana House - itself the most bitterly divided chamber in the US, with 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

Nationally, the state legislatures themselves could hardly be more evenly split. In 20 states, the Democrats control both chambers, in 19, both houses are Republican-controlled, 10 states are split, and one - Nebraska - is nonpartisan.

"This is a big, historic election," says Tim Storey, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Redistricting of congressional seats looms after the 2000 census, and both parties are jockeying to control as many state legislative chambers and governor's offices as they can to gain a partisan advantage when the maps are redrawn. Governors and potential governors are eager to elect friendly legislatures so they can enact their agendas - and, in turn, help them win election next time around. They also want to build up their parties' farm teams.

On issues such as welfare reform, control of legislatures has gained in importance this decade as Congress has devolved power to the states.

For all of the above reasons, the state and national parties are providing more support than ever - cash, personnel, polling, and ads - to what seem like lowly local races. Spending on some races could go as high as $1 million.

Mr. Paust, a lanky, affable businessman in the east Indiana college town of Richmond, expects to spend about $60,000 - a relative bargain, because he's not in an expensive media market. But he's gotten invaluable help from his congressman, Rep. David McIntosh (R), who is reported to have his eye on the governor's office in 2000. And former Vice President Dan Quayle, an Indiana native, has cut some radio ads for him.

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In addition, an eager young Republican aide from the legislature in Indianapolis has been sent by the Republican caucus to help Paust win. He came armed with maps of Paust's district showing where the strongest Republican areas are - the parts Paust visits first when he's going door-to-door.

Paust faces an uphill battle. His opponent, a 12-year incumbent and Richmond High classmate named Dick Bodiker, is popular. Still, even if Paust loses, Indiana political analyst Brian Vargus predicts the Republicans statewide will make a net gain of one or two seats. "That's the picture today," cautions Mr. Vargus, head of the Indiana University Public Opinion Laboratory in Indianapolis. "But it's been bouncing back and forth."

Nationally, Mr. Storey of the NCSL also expects the GOP to make gains in the total number of legislative seats it holds, a continuation of the nationwide trend toward Republicanism that has given the GOP control of both houses of Congress and 32 of 50 governor's seats. A shift of only 178 of 7,424 seats would give Republicans the majority for only the second time since the Depression. As with congressional races, midterm elections usually mean losses for the president's party.

Strong incumbent Republican governors will make it that much harder for Democrats to make inroads into Republican control or even protect what they already have.

In Texas, where the GOP already controls the state Senate, Democratic control of the House - 82 seats to 68 - could be shaky in light of Republican Gov. George W. Bush's strong reelection run.

In Georgia, Republicans say they have a good shot at taking over both houses of the legislature, as their gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner fights a tough race to take over the open governor's chair.

In California, another state with a closely fought governor's race, the Democrats are confident they can hold narrow control of their state Assembly, where the margin is currently 43 Democrats to 37 Republicans. In that most populous of states, control of the redistricting process could shift the partisan tilt of at least 10 congressional seats.

In Indiana, Vargus says the Democrats could lose four or five statehouse seats if they lose control of the legislature.

But some political analysts, such as congressional-election expert Charles Cook, caution against placing too much store in the power of state legislatures to draw districts that can perfectly predict a partisan outcome.

Vargus notes that the last time Indiana redistricted, after the 1990 census, Republicans controlled the legislature - and wound up with a congressional delegation that was heavily Democratic, seven seats to three.

And no matter how much outside actors try to influence local races for state legislatures with fancy Washington-style campaign tactics, "it really boils down to who wants it bad enough, who works hard, who makes the fund-raising calls, who knocks on the most doors," says Kevin Mack, head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee in Washington, an arm of the national Democratic Party that tries to help Democrats win their state legislative races.

Ken Paust hopes that all his pavement pounding and leaflet distributing will show the people of Indiana's District 56 that he's their man. At every door, he tells people that electing him could turn control of the legislature to the Republicans, who want a permanent cut in property taxes of $1 billion over two years.

Richmond resident Edith Wewe, who opened her door to Paust last Friday evening, liked the idea of a tax cut. "If we can get away from that tax, the better off we'll be," she told him. And she agreed with his concern that people simply won't turn out to vote: "We all need to. It's a privilege we have."

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