Crucial neck-and-neck House race in Washington
EVERETT, Wash. (Reuters) - Washington state's 2nd Congressional District is a bucolic patch of land dotted with tulip farms, Navy bases and Boeing Corp. aircraft plants.
It is also the site of a hotly contested battle in this year's war for Congress, one of a handful that will determine whether Democrats can pick up the seven seats needed to wrest control of the House from Republicans.
The swing district, which stretches north of Seattle to Canada, is wide open as Republican Rep. Jack Metcalf steps down to honor a self-imposed six-year term limit.
His fellow Republican John Koster, a dairy farmer turned state legislator, is running neck-and-neck against Rick Larsen, a Democrat with two years service as a county councilman, in a district that supported Democrat Bill Clinton by comfortable margins in the last two presidential elections.
Both candidates largely echo their parties on major issues. Like Republican nominee George W. Bush, Koster, 49, talks about a limited federal government, favors tax cuts and private accounts for Social Security.
"This campaign is about a positive message, it's about opportunity and choices for people," Koster said at a recent debate. "I believe the federal government's job is to help people solve problems, help them live their lives, not live it for them."
Larsen, 35, supports Democratic nominee Al Gore's stance of paying down the national debt, offering limited tax cuts and creating a prescription drug plan for all seniors.
"I try to worry about problems at hand rather than worry too much about ideology," Larsen said.
ABORTION A KEY ISSUE
The two also have sparred on local issues, such as gas pipeline safety, a hot topic after a pipeline blast in Bellingham last year killed three people.
Larsen wants to institute tougher rules while Koster, who voted for more restrictions on pipeline operators in the state legislature, wants more state oversight and enforcement of existing laws.
But with little else separating them on the local level, they are most sharply divided on a topic that has so far taken a backseat in the presidential race -- abortion.
Although Koster edged Larsen by three percentage points in Washington's open primary, the race is considered a dead heat and both candidates are using abortion to try to drum up votes.
A staunch abortion foe, Koster has highlighted the issue in campaign letters, with one calling Larsen "fanatical on his pro-abortion stand."
"As pro-life supporters, we have a REAL opportunity to win the Second District seat on November 7th! The race is SO close and every vote counts in this district," one letter read.
Larsen, meanwhile, is running television spots contrasting Koster's conservative cry for less government interference with his crusade to outlaw abortion.
Koster's strong showing in the primary surprised many Democrats. He mustered a strong grass-roots campaign despite having about half as much cash as Larsen, having raised $770,000 by mid-October to Larsen's $1.3 million.
Larsen has won the backing of the Seattle Times, which slammed Koster for "divisiveness and fear-mongering" during his stint in the state legislature.
Koster, the Times wrote, "mistrusts the United Nations as a conspiracy of the New World Order, promotes a secessionist movement within his own county and tries to turn his disgust for homosexuality and abortion into law."
The Skagit Valley Herald also came out in favor of Larsen, but the Everett Herald, the main newspaper for Snohomish County and the city of Everett, has endorsed Koster, saying his folksy style and honesty could help him bridge party differences.
"Koster brings his own engaging personality and an ability to speak his own mind respectfully -- and with flashes of humor -- to people who disagree with him," the Herald wrote. "Koster ... brings a refreshingly different background that is far from that of a career politician."
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