PHILADELPHIA – It didn't take long for Melissa Brown (search), a Republican running for the U.S. House, to win over a gaggle of Democratic-leaning beauticians at the Beauty Worx Day Spa.
"I want to support a woman," said Lisa Cahill.
"Girl power!" chimed in Dianna P. Santiago.
Brown quickly cut them off.
"I'm actually running against a woman," she said.
The House race between Brown and Democratic state Sen. Allyson Y. Schwartz (search) is considered the most competitive House race between two women in the country this year. It will split the crucial women's vote in Pennsylvania's largely suburban 13th Congressional District, and is attracting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from beyond the state.
Democratic and Republican women are facing off in 11 House races this year, including contests for three open seats in Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia. As a result, the number of women in Congress is expected to grow after November, from 14 in the Senate and 60 in the House.
Other races being watched closely include:
— Florida's 20th District, where Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz (search) is expected to prevail over Republican Margaret Hostetter (search) for an open seat in a district generally dominated by Democrats.
— Florida's 13th District, where Republican Rep. Katherine Harris (search) faces Democrat Jan Schneider (search) for the second time. Schneider defeated three other Democrats to again challenge Harris, who as Florida's secretary of state oversaw the controversial 2000 presidential election recount.
It is the Pennsylvania race between Brown and Schwartz — both of whom support abortion rights — that has generated the most interest and money. The open seat is made up of northeast Philadelphia and a sprawling slice of suburban Montgomery County. It is being vacated by Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel (search), who is running for the Senate.
The district leans Democratic, but has swung back and forth between the two parties three times since 1992.
Schwartz, a former women's health clinic administrator, has represented parts of the district for 14 years as a state senator. She has never faced a female opponent in a general election, but believes the gender issue is largely "off the table" in her race against Brown.
"I think what it comes down to, as it always does, whether I'm running against a woman or a man, is: Who has the same priorities?" Schwartz said. "Who understands my concerns, and will represent me well in Congress?"
National security is a big concern in the 13th District — particularly among the "security moms" who are married, have small children and worry about terrorism.
Schwartz, who supports the war in Iraq, says security systems "should be a lot smarter" about keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. But she disagrees with Brown, who says profiling groups of people by ethnicity or religion is sometimes necessary.
"The reason we have to do it is because we have people cutting Americans' heads off, for crying out loud," Brown said.
Both candidates also are focusing on health care.
Brown, an eye surgeon, wants to cap pain and suffering jury payouts in medical malpractice cases to hold down health care costs. Pennsylvania is one of about a dozen states where such limits do not exist. Schwartz says she could support a flexible cap — to be decided by courts on a case-by-case basis — but would focus more directly on providing health benefits to the uninsured and lowering the costs of prescription drugs.