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November's top prize might be a statehouse

Winners of key state legislative races will determine who shapes US House districts.

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The line of firefighters shaking David Fisher's hand may not know it, but this Democratic state Senate hopeful is easily the most-watched candidate in Texas.

Oh, sure, there's that Bush fellow. But the race between Mr. Fisher and state Rep. Todd Staples is where the action is.

The reason is pure mathematics. The balance of power in the nation's state legislatures - now evenly split - will be one of the most important outcomes of Election 2000. If Fisher wins this seat, Democrats will control both houses of the Texas legislature, in a year when statehouses around the country will be drawing new district lines that will determine the makeup of Congress for the next decade.

As such, this race in east Texas could be pivotal for the state, and perhaps emblematic of what will happen nationwide.

"Whoever wins there will likely determine the political makeup of the Texas statehouse," says Ross Ramsey, editor of Texas Weekly, an Austin-based political newsletter. "The outside forces are interested in [the Staples-Fisher] race because of redistricting." Even without the added volatility of a redistricting year, statehouse races have grown increasingly important, as states take on more responsibility for issues that touch citizens' lives.

George W. Bush and Al Gore may debate about how best to improve the nation's public schools, but the truth is that most decisions affecting education - including teacher training, educational standards, and private-school vouchers - are made in the state legislatures. Similarly, state lawmakers are blazing new trails in criminal justice, welfare reform, and in the way businesses and civilians use the civil court system.

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