PETERBURG, Va. – The untimely death of a congressman in this corner of south-central Virginia has given politicians of both parties an opportunity for which they otherwise would have had to wait until next November: A taste of the fallout from election 2000.
In a special election set for June 19, Democrat Louise Lucas, an 18-year veteran of Norfolk's naval shipyards and an African-American, and Republican Randy Forbes, a corporate attorney, will have a go at the 4th Congressional District seat occupied by Blue Dog Democrat Norman Sisisky for 18 years.
National leaders have been watching the race closely as a bellwether for the 2002 general election, George W. Bush's mid-term report card from the voters. The district is 40 percent African-American, but the moderate-leaning voting patterns make it competitive.
That's why Vice President Dick Cheney was stumping for Forbes in an early-morning fundraiser breakfast Monday. The vice president attempted to play down the importance of keeping the House in Republican hands.
"In a Congress that is this evenly divided, every race is important," Cheney told reporters before speaking to about 600 Forbes reporters. "But, we think this race is special, partly because we have a candidate of very high caliber. We think he'd be a great addition to the Republican conference in the House of Representatives, exactly the kind of man we need to get involved in politics."
The vacancy in the 4th District was created by the death in late March of Sisisky following a struggle with lung cancer. In the middle of his 10th term in Congress, Sisisky gained a reputation on the Hill as a conservative Democrat and was a founding member of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a group of like-minded party members who favored a balanced budget and increased defense spending.
No independent polling has been done on the current race, but local leaders from both political parties say internal surveys show a close race. President Bush won the 4th District by about 500 votes, but freshman Republican Sen. and former Gov. George Allen lost by several thousand in the last election.
In a Monday afternoon debate between the candidates, Lucas attempted to portray herself as the bearer of Sisisky's Democratic legacy.
"The people in the 4th Congressional District want someone who is going to share their values, someone who is going to share the values of Rep. Sisisky, someone who is going to fight for their Social Security benefits to make sure we are not privatizing on the roller coaster of the stock market," Lucas said, sniping at a campaign theme of Forbes, who supports letting future retirees voluntarily invest a portion of their Social Security earnings.
Forbes, who recently sponsored a bill to locate a veterans' cemetery in a district with tens of thousands of veterans, focused on his conservative voting record and a stalwart Republican theme.
"I think one of the things we need to make certain is that we're not using tax and the tax system to do public policy. Taxes ought to be to raise revenue, not to punish things that are going on in our society," he said.
The contest is expected to be close with little voter turnout, but that hasn't reined in the cost, which may reach $5 million after an ad campaign that has flooded the airwaves.
And to raise the stakes even further, in a district where there are three major military bases and so many veterans, both candidates have been promised seats on the House Armed Services Committee if they win.
Fox News' Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report.