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Even though Al Gore and George W. Bush have not been formally nominated for president by their parties yet, let alone debated one another, their essential messages are already known, and the year's key issues have already been identified.

So if you're looking for a dollop of suspense and surprise this campaign season, try the battle for control of the House Of Representatives.

House Republicans have a slim majority of just six seats. Of the 34 seats around the country that will be open because the representative is retiring or seeking another office, 25 are now Republican and 9 Democrat.

2000 is the "best open seats environment for Democrats since 1958" when Democrats picked up 14 open seats, says Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman John Del Cecato. "Republicans have to defend three times as many open seats."

Amy Walter, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says the ratio is more like 2-to-1 when you consider the Republican voting habits of many of the open districts. While open seats are more volatile and harder to defend, "It's a smaller margin than one can see from looking at 25-to-9, [because] a lot of these open seats are still in tough districts for Democrats."

To complicate the mathematics of the Democrats' situation, eccentric Ohio congressman Jim Traficant - a nominal Democrat who's fallen out with his party's leadership - has promised to vote to re-elect Republican Denny Hastert as Speaker of the House in the next Congress, regardless of which party's in control. (Clearly, no one's in control of Mr. Traficant.) Another Democratic member, Virgil Goode, switched to independent in January.

Don't expect a popular tide that sweeps either party's candidates into - or out of - office en masse like the anti-incumbent, anti-politics mood of 1994 that brought a very conservative freshman class to the Capitol, or the impeachment backlash of '98 that threw some Republicans back out again.

"This is not one of those tsunami elections," says Peter Fenn, a Democratic media consultant who has several clients in House races. "I think this year is going to be heavily incumbent-oriented. There isn't 'throw the bums out' this year. There isn't this vitriol or feeling that the country's going down the tubes."

"It is not like what we saw for example in 1992," says the Cook Report's Walter, "where there was a bad economic situation, and the message of change - throw incumbents out, put women in - was a palpable theme throughout the summer and fall."

No single issue has crystallized as either party's signature cause in a way that creates a necessary connection in voters' minds between their local candidate and his or her party's presidential nominee, nor is there any expectation that Gore or Bush will have "coattails" nationwide.

"There is not one particular issue that is going to be defining thesraces," Walter says. "It goes back to the 'all politics is local' adage. Look for very specialized races where one issue or another surfaces."

The presidential debate, which already seems to have gelled around Social Security, health care, education and surplus budgeting, may resonate in some congressional races, but Walter predicts those issues will "be talked about differently in different districts" in whatever way serves the local candidate.

In this non-ideological year, parties will do what they have to do to retain an incumbent's seat or win an open one. Walter cites a pro-gun control, pro-choice Republican candidate running in a Chicago suburb; a conservative businessman running as a Democrat in Utah; and an Oklahoma Republican who does not support George Bush's Social Security plan.

No matter how idiosyncratic the message in any district, the resources will be there to cover the costs of tailoring it.

Democrats, who are traditionally outspent by Republicans in general elections, recently reported their highest-ever cash-on-hand figure. At $37.4 million, it's more than twice what Republicans have. "No Democrat will leave a House race this time for lack of funds," says Del Cecato.

"There are unprecedented amounts of money flowing into these races," says Walter, who thinks Republicans can make up the difference. "The bottom line is both parties are going to have as much money as they want to spend" in addition to money spent by third parties on the races. "You're not going to see a candidate who doesn't have money to target voters and to talk to voters."

Peter Fenn predicts, "This is hand-to-hand combat, district by district, candidate by candidate, quirk by quirk."

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