WASHINGTON – In West Virginia, where there are more senior citizens per capita than in any other state in the union, "saving Social Security" and providing prescription drug coverage are more than just empty campaign slogans.
GOP incumbent Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and challenger James Humphreys knew that full well walking into their first of four televised debates Friday night.
"The key issues, I think, are health issues, particularly a prescription drug plan for seniors, which I have been aggressive in fighting for. Also Social Security," Capito told Foxnews.com.
Capito, only the third Republican in almost 80 years to represent West Virginia in Congress, said she supports allowing young people to invest some of their payroll taxes in private Social Security investments. She also voted for the GOP-sponsored prescription drug plan that passed the House in June.
Humphreys, who ran against Capito in the last election, is against any privatization, and backs the unsuccessful House Democratic drug plan, which would have created universal drug coverage through Medicaid rather than private insurers.
Both have been fighting to make their case in what might become the second most expensive House race in the country -- bested only by Republican Rep. Connie Morella's fierce re-election battle in Maryland.
Like many races across the country, it's a race that bears the markings of a vote of confidence for President Bush.
Capito, who has been accused of not bringing home the bacon to West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, has had to fight charges that her support for the 2001 tax cut pushed by the president worsened the state's economy.
"The Republicans have failed to address the real economic issues that we face in this country," said Pat Maroney, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party.
"I think [Capito] blew her opportunity to serve the folks of West Virginia well," Maroney added.
Capito said that the stagnant state economy has made it difficult "to keep our head above water" during the sluggish upturn, but state policies that are unfriendly to business and declining steel and coal industries are the real challenge.
In the 2nd District, which covers the central part of the state from Harper's Ferry in the east to the Ohio River town of Point Pleasant, at least one county is suffering from 15 percent unemployment, she said.
"I voted for tax cuts and I believe that if we hadn't had them, our recession would have been deeper and wider," she said. "I believe we are in a period of no-growth, that with the stock market not performing, has casted a wide feeling of pessimism. That's why [the House] passed an economic stimulus package."
Capito also complained that she felt "mischaracterized" and "attacked" by a recent Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ad that said she voted to privatize Social Security when in fact there was never such a vote on the House floor. Rather, Capito voted to allow the president's commission on Social Security, which included pro-privatization forces, to move forward in its work.
The daughter of Arch Alfred Moore Jr., the only governor in the state's history to serve three terms, Capito said she believes she's worked hard and effectively to help West Virginians.
Nonetheless, she is facing a tough fight against Humphreys, a trial attorney who made much of his fortune from asbestos litigation.
A former state lawmaker, Humphreys, who lost to the freshman representative by a two-percent margin in 2000, has raised $2.9 million for his current campaign, according to reports dating to the end of June. Ninety percent of it has been his own money. Capito has been forced to raise $1.6 million, half of which came from political action committees.
"Jim Humphreys can spend $10 million to redo his image, but it's not going to do him a bit of good," charged Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Humphreys did not return calls for an interview. Last week, he joined the American Steel Workers in complaining that Capito has turned her back on the industry. He also has played up Capito's odd-man-out position as the only Republican in the five-person congressional delegation representing a state that is 2-to-1 Democrat.
It is not yet clear who is making the stronger case to voters since all the polling in the race has been internal. Nathan Gonzales, political analyst with The Rothenberg Report, said that in recent months, Capito has moved safely out of the "most vulnerable" category and appears to be a comfortable distance ahead of Humphreys.
"Democrats see this as a race in which they are mid- to low-single digits behind, the Republicans see their candidate as being double digits ahead. There's a big difference in how close this really is," Gonzales said.
"She's starting to solidify herself, and it's become more difficult for Democrats to take this seat," he added.