DALLAS — Images of the World Trade Center in flames fill the television screen. A somber voice warns that a local Republican House member is soft on airline security. Stark words appear: "Protect America. Say No to Pete Sessions."
That message is courtesy of Sessions' Democratic opponent, Rep. Martin Frost, long an influential member of his party on Capitol Hill. But Sessions, a Republican, has sent out a message of his own: Fliers in Dallas mailboxes accuse Frost of consorting with a former child molester and more.
These and other tough punches mark a congressional campaign that has the distinction of being the second-most expensive House race in history -- and one of the nastiest in the country.
On its face, the contest -- between Frost, a 26-year incumbent, and Sessions, who has been in Congress since 1996 -- is simply over who will represent a big chunk of Dallas in the House. But more broadly, it is one of the key fights in a determined national effort by GOP leaders to retain and expand their House majority.
Dallas voters are facing a rare choice between two incumbents because Sessions and Frost were thrown into the same district by a bold Republican move to redraw congressional district lines in Texas that were supposed to stay in place until 2012.
The effort, spearheaded by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is crucial because it is expected to give the GOP enough new seats in Texas to virtually guarantee they will keep control of the House.
The fight in Dallas also is a microcosm of national political trends, sharing many hallmarks of the race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.
It pits a Republican who favors more tax cuts, limits on lawsuits and a free-market approach to healthcare against a Democrat who disagrees on all those issues. And while the presidential campaign has been riddled with attack ads and scare tactics, the House race in Dallas shows that Bush and Kerry have not cornered the market on negativism.
If anything, the mud is flying thicker and faster in Dallas. Sessions has accused Frost of tax evasion. The Frost campaign accused Sessions of "indecent exposure" because he was a streaker while in college. They have accused each other of dirty tricks with lawn signs. An anti-immigration group aired an ad against Frost that critics said was racist.
The race offers voters a real choice between two very different, credible candidates. But for many voters, the bitter, personal quality of the candidates' attacks is overshadowing the debate over issues.
When students at the University of Texas in Dallas met with Sessions recently, they peppered him with questions about why the campaign was so negative.
"How do we focus on the issues?" they asked, as Sessions recounted later. He said they wanted to know, "What's fair? What's not fair? Is it true we just don't like each other?"
Many voters casting early ballots recently were battle weary. Said Sue Lott, an employee of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: "Politicians are notorious for sliming the other side, but this has gone over the top."
The campaign is grueling for both men, but especially so for Frost, 62.
The reconfigured district has a pronounced Republican tilt, presenting Frost with his hardest reelection challenge. And the contest crystallizes two of the most powerful trends that have transformed political campaigning since he was first elected to the House in 1978: the continuous rise in campaign spending and the escalation of attack politics.
"Campaigns were very different when I ran in 1978," Frost said recently when he addressed a class at Southern Methodist University.
That year, he said, his campaign spent $250,000 -- half to beat a Democratic incumbent, Dale Milford, in their party's primary, and half in the general election. Now, Frost and Sessions are on track to spend $4 million each -- more than any other House race this year.
The only more expensive House race was in 2000, when $11.5 million was spent as Democrat Adam B. Schiff beat GOP Rep. Jim Rogan to represent a Burbank-based district.
In 1978, Frost's central campaign theme in his primary victory was that Milford was too conservative. In Frost's few forays into negative campaigning, he criticized Milford for flying first class and taking foreign trips.
"That was considered very daring stuff back then," said one longtime Frost associate who asked not to be named. "Compared to things going on now, that is ho-hum."
But the 1988 presidential campaign was a formative experience for Frost and other politicians of his generation. Helping then-Vice President George H.W. Bush overcome an early disadvantage in the polls was his campaign's aggressive attack on Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis that portrayed him as weak on defense and soft on crime. Dukakis was slow to respond, and lost.
From that episode, many politicians drew two conclusions that remain guiding principles today: Negative campaigning works, and no attack should go unanswered.