WASHINGTON – After raising nine children and running eight election campaigns, Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., says she's tougher than ever.
She'd better be, say political observers, because she has her most arduous political challenge ahead of her.
"We don't have another Republican who is viewed as more vulnerable than Connie Morella," said Nathan Gonzales, an analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report.
Besides facing a well-financed, well-known Kennedy relative among a parade of Democratic challengers, Morella has the added obstacle of being a Republican — though a moderate one — in a new-fangled district with many more Democrats.
The new map, developed by Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening and Democratic legislative leaders in the General Assembly, takes liberal voters from neighboring and largely minority-based Prince George's County and puts them into the more affluent, and more Republican voter base of suburban Maryland's horse farm set.
"They tried to gerrymander me into retirement and in doing so they have divided a district and severed communities apart," Morella told Foxnews.com.
But distinction is nothing new to Morella. A member of both the pro-choice and child care caucuses, Morella has broken with her party on a variety of issues ranging from former President Bill Clinton's impeachment to campaign finance reform.
She has voted for accelerating the minimum wage, and more recently against a rule that kept a Democratic substitute on prescription drugs from being brought to a floor vote. She ended up voting for the Republican bill, though she disagreed with some of its measures. She said she hopes Senate Democrats will be able to plug in what she said are gaps in coverage in the GOP plan.
She defends her record by pointing out that she must be doing something right to have the people's trust for 16 years.
"I earn every vote I get and I've worked very hard," she said.
Still, Democrats, seeing their best opportunity to take back the 8th, say the "R" next to Morella's name is like a noose around her neck.
"I think there has been a sense in the district since 1995 that Connie Morella, a liberal Republican, was increasingly a luxury we could no longer afford," said Ira Shapiro, a former senior official in the Clinton administration who is running for the Democratic nod to challenge her.
Shapiro — who is battling for the Democratic nomination against state Del. Mark Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver; state Sen. Chris Van Hollen; and attorney Deborah A. Vollmer, a 2000 candidate — said Morella votes independently on legislation "when, in fact, it didn't matter," but casts key votes for the party when it counts, like for President Bush's tax cut.
The refrain is the same from her other would-be opponents.
"In some ways, she's voted with the way the district has wanted her to vote, but she has not stood with it on every issue," said Van Hollen. "Her first vote is always for the speaker of the house."
"Connie Morella supports the far right agenda of [Speaker] Dennis Hastert and [Majority Whip] Tom DeLay," added Shriver. "We deserve better than that."
Her supporters disagree.
"That's a bunch of bull," said a bemused Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Mainstreet "Mods," which counts in its membership Morella and other GOP centrists. "She doesn't just support our moderate policies for convenience or politics. She follows through by walking the walk."
Morella, a staunch supporter of the environment and animal rights, also balks at such suggestions.
"There is no way I could be more independent than I already am," she said.
But that independence has been put to the test as Morella martials support from the party, most recently from President Bush himself, who offered glowing praise for her work during a fundraiser that netted Morella's campaign $500,000.
And though she has never been a favorite of party loyalists, Republican organizers say she is a good fit for the district and the party will rally behind her.
"The most important thing for every member of Congress is to represent their district and she does that very well," said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the Republican National Campaign Committee, who added that the party recognizes that she has stood with it when it counted.
It's that acknowledgement her opponents are banking on.
"She will be indebted more than ever to the Republican agenda, that agenda is out of step with the people of this area," charged Van Hollen.
But Democrats in the race have their own challenges ahead of them. They are in a bitter race to challenge the incumbent, most recently demonstrated by accusations from Van Hollen that Shriver is misrepresenting his role in gun control legislation that Van Hollen sponsored. All four Democratic candidates and Morella support gun controls.
In a May Democratic poll, Shriver led Van Hollen 26 percent to 19 percent, followed by Shapiro at 17 percent. Meanwhile, a GOP poll in April found Morella leading both Shriver and Van Hollen by 20 and 34 points respectively. Although she had her tightest race in 2000, winning by only 52 percent, her favorability rating with voters is at 75 percent, according to the same poll.
Forti said Morella also benefits from sitting out a bruising September Democratic primary that will leave the brutalized winner little time to run directly against Morella.
"It's a situation where she will be able to raise money and sit on it while they duke it out," Forti said. "They'll wake up in September all bruised and battered and out of money."