This could be a gathering of the PTA or the rotary club (search) -- dinner in the church basement, a blizzard of old jokes and a table of raffled gifts.

But the 150 people gathering on a recent Thursday night aren't here to talk about schools or trees or small-town entrepreneurs. Tonight is about election-year politics -- talk-to-your-friends, knock-on-doors, make-it-happen politics.

It's spring, and Jefferson County's Republicans are blossoming like a perennial.

Here are businessmen, teachers, retired state troopers. They're the ones who rally the faithful and persuade the uncertain to see things the GOP way -- "the foot soldiers," Jefferson County Republican Party chairman Troy Harper calls them.

"They're talking. When I'm butchering, you hear them talking, the buzz is there," said "Moon" VanSteenberg, who weighs out chopped meat during the week and runs concession stands at weekend fairs. "Word of mouth is your best advertiser."

This, we are told, is how politics is supposed to work -- like-minded citizens, gathering under the banners of political parties to discuss issues, propose candidates and work for their election. This is how it works in this western Pennsylvania town and in places like it.

But for much of America, there is something quaint about the Jefferson County Republicans (search), something reminiscent of the last century or the one before that.

The national parties of 2004 are very different animals.

They are often maligned as fund-raising, poll-crazy machines that stand for little except electing and re-electing candidates who stand for little. On many lists of the political system's deficiencies, the parties are near the top.

And yet, something else is happening.

Though more and more Americans declare themselves independents, they are also more and more likely to vote reliably for one party or another. We live in an age in which red and blue are not merely colors -- they represent Republicans and Democrats, respectively -- but a core set of political beliefs, a perspective on what government should be. On the political map of the United States, the red states are getting redder, the blue states bluer.

The parties are irrelevant.

The parties are vital.

Can both statements be true?

Growing up in New Mexico, Jennifer Warren never gave her affiliation much thought: Her family was Republican, her friends were Republican, she was a Republican.

Her first presidential vote, at 18, went to Bob Dole (search). "There's sort of a feeling that liberals want to spend your money and control the way you live."

But as she grew older, and moved away for school and work -- she's a fund-raiser at a Manhattan theater -- she questioned what she once accepted.

She learned about the Democratic Party (search) on her own, researching on the Internet. And then made the leap from virtual reality to the real thing, coming to Democratic meet-ups and attending gatherings where volunteers call would-be voters in swing states, encouraging them to register and vote. She's 26 now, and true blue.

"I feel more politically engaged than I've ever felt in my life," she says.

Not too long ago, Warren's political conversion would have been as convulsive -- and as unusual -- as a religious conversion.

"You inherited your party like you inherited your religion. You participated in political events that were social events, too, picnics, torchlight campaigns, festivities you engaged in as a family," says Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

At their apex, in the 1880s, the parties drove massive voter turnouts, and divided the country sharply into one camp or another.

"They provided every essential service, giving people shelter, providing them food, providing them legal counsel," Madonna says. "There was only one thing they ever asked for -- your vote on Election Day."

And as hard as it may seem today, politics were entertainment. Parades, whistlestop tours, public speeches were at least as much county fair as debate.

The flip side of that coin, however, was backroom deals, dirty politics, votes for sale, intimidation at the polls. Talk about the politics of division -- those glory years for the parties make today's negative attacks pale in comparison, with Catholics against Protestants, immigrants against "nativists," labor against management.

Reforms drove out patronage and professionalized government service, subbing trained government workers for friends and allies of party bosses -- and sapping the parties' strength.

Meanwhile, growing suburbanization of the country after World War II (search) unraveled the close-knit ties of urban and rural society. The parties no longer served as a civic glue.

They also seemed to be less and less distinct. While the Republicans were generally known as the party of business and the Democrats as the workers' party, each group was actually a composite, with liberal and conservative wings.

"The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers," Kurt Vonnegut once wrote. "The people don't acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead."

In election years over the past half century, the National Election Studies (search) surveyed Americans on whether they believed there were any important differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. Through the years, the numbers dip and climb -- but there is a trend.

From 1952 to 1990, 51 percent said there were significant differences between Democrats and Republicans; 42 percent said there were none, and the rest said they did not know.

From 1992 to 2000, though, Americans were far more likely to see distinctions between the parties: 59 percent said there was a real difference, and only 37 percent said there was none.

They saw more differences because there are more differences. At mid-century, as battles raged over civil rights, the Democrats lost much of their Southern conservative base; the Republicans followed the conservative path from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to George W. Bush, their liberal wing just a shadow of what it once was.

It is true that the number of independent voters has climbed: The Center for the Study of the American Electorate (search) saw those registering as "other" than Democrat or Republican grow from 1.6 percent in 1962 to 13 percent in 1998.

But Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, in their book "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters," say that voters continue to use party identification as a kind of Rorschach test (search) -- if they know nothing else about the candidates, they will vote for the Democrat because they assume he leans liberal or the Republican because she's probably conservative.

Larry Bartels, a Princeton University political scientist who has analyzed election returns back to the 1860s, says voters find more of a connection to the political parties now than they have in decades. The nation's voters line up more and more behind one party or the other in presidential elections, Bartels found.

"This conventional wisdom regarding the decline of parties is both exaggerated and outdated," Bartels writes. "Whatever prospective voters may say in response to survey questions, and whatever academics may write and believe, actual presidential election outcomes suggest that we have been living through an era marked by unusually strong partisan continuity."

Bartels analyzed electoral returns and voters' self-identification in terms of political party, assessing what he calls partisanship.

Since 1972, Bartels found, partisan voting has increased roughly 10 percent every four years, and by 1996 partisan voting was 77 percent higher. The '96 voting was nearly 20 percent higher than 1950s voting.

"We're back to about the same levels of partisanship that we saw at the beginning of the 20th century," he says.

The result can be seen nationally -- in the closely fought presidential election of 2000 -- but it is even more glaring on a local level.

A county-by-county examination by the Austin American-Statesman found "American communities were more lopsidedly Republican or Democrat than at any time in the past half-century."

The Texas newspaper's analysis of the 2000 vote found that an increasing number of people live in counties where they vote just like their neighbors. The implications? Less debate, more homogeneity, a partisan divide that goes beyond the red-and-blue states down to the communities.

In 1976, just over a quarter of the voters lived in counties saw what the newspaper called "landslide" votes, with over 60 percent for one party or another. By 2000, 45.3 percent of voters lived in landslide counties.

Still, the parties aren't what they once were.

Party platforms that once boldly set out principles have ballooned into volumes of appeals to special interests. The smoke-filled rooms where bosses once picked candidates for presidents were aired out long ago -- an improvement, but at a cost: The candidates are selected in a haphazard primary system that gives enormous influence to a few small states, and party leaders have very little influence.

Television brought candidates directly to the voters and eliminated the party as the conduit for choosing the best person, says Ed Rendell (search). Now Pennsylvania's governor and before that the mayor of Philadelphia, Rendell spent two years as head of the Democratic National Committee, a job focused on raising money.

"Remember there's two goals in a campaign. One, to persuade voters to vote for you, and two, to get people to turn out," Rendell says. "Parties are good at turnout. They're not really as good at persuasion."

"The war of ideas, the war of character, the war of personality" -- that's fought on television, in newspapers, by the candidates themselves. Not the party, not anymore, he said.

So what's left?

More than anything, the parties raise money -- $370.8 million by the national committees between Jan. 1, 2003 and Feb. 29, 2004, according to the Federal Election Commission (search).

And as Rendell says, they boost turnout. They use computers to target likely or loyal voters, turning to direct mail and phone banks to call people repeatedly before each election.

But they do not necessarily boost turnout everywhere. States that are safely Republican or Democrat -- roughly two-thirds -- are virtually ignored by the parties. Outside the 18 swing states, few have seen the TV ads that have cost each party millions so far.

And it makes sense. Fight where victory is possible.

But beyond victory, what's the larger effect?

Some say voters have been turned off by this narrow focus on winning. "The significant thing is there's more citizens in this country who are not particularly enamored with either party than there are who are part of the parties' voting bases," said Ron Faucheux, a former legislator and campaign consultant who teaches politics at George Washington University.

The middle ground isn't 2 percent or 10 percent, but closer to 35 percent of the electorate, Faucheux says. "Because they're given only two choices in most elections, most of these voters split off and develop picking patterns of one side or the other. But most of these people would like to have another choice."

The system is not kind to third parties, though. Some have succeeded -- the Republican Party itself was an offshoot of the Democratic Party, ultimately supplanting the Federalist Party (search) -- but most didn't. The Bull Moose Party (search), the Know-Nothings, the Greenbacks, the Dixiecrats (search) all faded, were defeated or were absorbed.

This year, the biggest challenge to the system is posed by Ralph Nader (search), who is insistent that there is little difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.

Mark Satin, a one-time radical leftist turned corporate lawyer, says the problem is that there ARE great differences between the two parties. He says there is a middle ground, comprised of people who want reasonable change, rejecting left and right but combining what is best from both ends of the spectrum.

Neither party speaks "for the American people as a whole," he says. "The Democrats pay attention to the teachers union, the other unions, the trial lawyers. The Republicans have the other side of that, the large corporations, down the list."

It's time, he says, for a third way.

In Reynoldsville, at the GOP dinner, the way is clear, and it is Republican.

"You're in a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small government area," says Troy Harper, scion of a Democratic family but now Republican chairman in Jefferson County. "We are the absolute beginning spot. We're what you call the foot soldiers, knocking on doors, manning phone banks."

The next morning, in the county seat of Brookville, Melvin Eshbaugh says he hears more than enough about politics. He doesn't heed the Democrats, but he doesn't pay attention to the county's Republican Party, either.

Eshbaugh, a 61-year-old highway consulting engineer, splits his ticket, at least in local and state races. Like most Jefferson County voters, when it comes to the top of the ticket he's "with the Republicans, the more conservative."

But he's not convinced the party faithful can reach him. He doesn't even want them to. Big-dollar fund-raisers, attack ads, it all turns him off.

"Me and politics," he says, "I just stay clear of it," he says.