SAN LUIS OBISPO — If Hollywood were planning a docudrama on the rise and possible fall of Congress' freshman Republican class, the 22nd Congressional District would be the place to shoot it.
In 1994, Republican Andrea Seastrand tapped into America's conservative groundswell and beat Democrat Walter Holden Capps by a mere 1,563 votes, or less than 1% of the total in this district that sprawls on the Central Coast from the Monterey County border down to Summerland.
Now, with the Republican revolution in apparent retreat, national interest groups--primarily on the pro-Democratic side--have poured tens of thousands of dollars into the district to try to make it a benchmark battle on such issues as abortion, education and the environment. Seastrand has received backing from a number of conservative interest groups, but their effort has been less visible.
With more than a month left in the campaign, the candidates are reeling from a hard-edged advertising blitzkrieg. And no letup is likely, because the first independent poll of the campaign, released this week, shows Seastrand leading Capps by only one percentage point--a dead heat statistically.
It was probably inevitable that Seastrand's race would become a heated showdown on the fate of the freshman class.
On the campaign trail two years ago, Seastrand fully embraced the socially conservative moment, suggesting in one speech that God might be flashing warning signs to sinful Californians: "Floods, drought, fires, earthquakes, lifting mountains two feet high in Northridge."
In Washington, Seastrand, 55, promptly established herself as a key backer of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the "contract with America." Even now, she refuses to spurn the speaker, despite conventional wisdom that he has become a political albatross.
Capps has been equally loyal to Bill Clinton during the president's swings in the popularity polls. A religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara, he is the author of a book that critiques Christian conservatives' political activism, and he portrays himself as a rational crusader against Seastrand's "extreme" stands.
The result is a race that offers one of the country's clearest ideological choices.
"At a time when most of the country has expressed disappointment with the work of the 104th Congress," the 62-year-old Capps said at Monday night's debate, "she has the gall to run on that record."
Seastrand shows no signs of backing down. "My constituents voted for me because of the stands I took," she said.
Capps recites a litany of Seastrand-backed program cuts he would not have supported, including congressional efforts to reduce funds for such education programs as Headstart and Goals 2000, for the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, for national parks, for family planning clinics and for AIDS research.
"With all due respect, she and I see the world very differently," he said.
For her part, Seastrand began the debate before the San Luis Obispo Medical Society by talking about the buckets of ice she and her fellow freshmen representatives found outside their offices each morning when they arrived in Washington.
Scrapping the program that delivered that free ice--a congressional perk since 1909--symbolized the GOP Congress' disciplined effort to reduce the size of government, she said.
If high contrast political stakes would not be enough to maintain interest, the race also offers its share of "Olympic moment"-style pathos.
Seastrand, the mother of two, first ran for political office six years ago, jumping into a state Assembly race when her husband Eric, the incumbent, died of cancer.
And in May, as Capps and his wife, Lois, returned home from a campaign appearance, a drunk driver swerved into their lane on rural California 154, leaving the candidate hospitalized with broken bones and other injuries. The father of three grown children, Capps limped back onto the campaign trail full time last month.
Seastrand tends to portray Capps as an ivory tower liberal, disconnected from the way most people live.
Discussing Seastrand, Capps sounds like a professor exasperated by a dim student who has somehow managed to win over the class. He is particularly impatient with the incumbent's unwillingness to let go of the rhetorical issues that served so many Republicans so well in 1994.
"I think we're suffering through a period of pretty heavy collective paranoia," Capps said Monday.
Seastrand's conservatism has made her a high-profile target. And she is seen as particularly vulnerable, given that this is a traditional swing district, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
James Wagoner, a vice president with the National Abortion Rights Action League, says that for months his organization has been mailing literature, sponsoring events and going door to door to tell Seastrand's constituents that "she is so out of step with their views on right-to-choose issues."