It is the home of the enviro-friendly Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream empire, the first civil unions law in the nation and 12-termer Bernie Sanders, the only Socialist in the U.S. House of Representatives.

So as Sanders, who is registered independent, leaves his post as Vermont's at-large congressman in a bid to become the only Socialist in the U.S. Senate, it would hardly be surprising if a liberal Democrat were to replace him.

But as political observers and both national parties make note, the open at-large seat is just that: very open and surprisingly competitive, with an aggressive run by a Republican former commandant of the state's National Guard giving Democrats a real fight.

"The reason this one is going to get interesting is because the national GOP is getting into it; they have targeted it," said Dennis Morrisseau, one of the Republican candidates vying to be in the general race.

Morrisseau, a retired businessman and Vietnam veteran, has no illusions about his chances. The state party has unofficially endorsed the candidacy of Republican Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, who until recently was the adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard. She stepped down from her post to run for Congress, and national Republican money is already pumping into her coffers.

"She is smooth on the platform and she will be hard for anybody to beat," said Morrisseau, who is anti-war like the majority of Vermonters today, and is running to provide this perspective in the Sept. 12 GOP primary. "It's going to be fun," he predicted.

It's also going to be increasingly expensive, say political analysts. Rainville may be getting extra attention from the party — just recently she had first lady Laura Bush in town for a $5,000 per ticket reception — but Democrats still hold the advantage and don't have a primary.

The lone Democratic candidate, Peter Welch, president pro tem of the state Senate, says his long career in public service makes him a better fit for Congress. He has raised $738,281 to Rainville's $333,918 as of the last Federal Election Commission filings.

"The politics there are going to be interesting," said Oliver Goodenough, a professor at Vermont Law School and an occasional political columnist. "Peter is an extremely competent politician, he's been in public service for a long time," said Goodenough. "Martha Rainville is very highly respected. I think there is potential there."

Beforehand, however, Rainville, who is positioning herself as a moderate Republican, also faces Mark Shepard, a successful small business owner and the conservative candidate in the September primary.

Some observers say the Republicans couldn't have recruited a better candidate in Rainville, who not only has the citizen-soldier credentials, but stands to be Vermont's first congresswoman. But this is also a big anti-war state that went heavily for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election, so a balance must be struck, and it is not clear yet whether she is effectively doing that, said Davis.

"Regardless of what they feel of the Iraq war, [Vermonters] respect the service of the people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan," Davis said. However, Rainville "is not wearing the uniform anymore and she is still unwilling to speak out against the administration's policy in Iraq."

Rainville, who said she considers herself an old Yankee Republican, conservative on the fiscal issues and more moderate on the social ones, acknowledges the war is going to be a major issue in November.

"The war has been very personal to us here in Vermont," she said, noting that the state has sent more soldiers and had more casualties per capita than nearly all the other states.

Welch, on the other hand, points out that like all Vermonters, he respects and supports the troops, but he never supported the war, and said he believes that voters are wary of candidates who might seem to cozy with the Bush administration and the national Republican Party.

"(President) Bush is extremely unpopular in Vermont," said Welch ticking off a laundry list of Republican policies that he says are hurting Vermont and the rest of the country, including tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug plan, the deficit, the energy bill and the war in Iraq.

"(Rainville) went to the Republican convention and gave her fealty to the Bush agenda and the national party agenda," he said. "She has said the Republican leadership has lost its way, but the leadership money found its way to her campaign."

In a non-binding straw poll taken at the May 20 state GOP convention, Rainville won with 70 percent, or 407 of the delegates, followed by Shepard with 174 votes and Morrisseau with two votes.

Shepard, who says Republicans have a shot to win here — both the governor and lieutenant governor in the state are Republicans, argued Rainville walks a fine line when she takes money from political action committees linked to congressional Republicans like House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., or former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who is resigning from the House this week amid ethics and corruption scandals.

"(This race) is about George Bush and the Republican Congress and a referendum on the war in Iraq. (Rainville) is going to lose on that," said Shepard, who plans to hammer away his own message of fiscal responsibility and economic growth for Vermont. So far, he's raised $39,717.

"You have huge money coming in for the anointed Republican candidate" as well as coming in for the Democratic candidate. "We've had enough of that; we want something different."

Jim Barnett, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party said he has heard all of the quips and criticisms, but the party plans to prove that Vermonters look at the person, not the party label, when they vote, and Rainville has a lot to offer to the state.

"Ultimately, they will be convinced she is the right person for the job," he said.

Welch, however, isn't convinced, he said, arguing that a vote for Rainville, no matter how independent she plays on the stump, will be a vote for one indebted to the national party, and that's not what Vermont is all about.

"The basic question that faces Vermont is whether we want to send one more vote in favor of the Bush administration and Republican Congress, or do we want a vote for change?"