GWEN IFILL: It's autumn in northern Indiana. That means Notre Dame football, sunshine on the famous golden dome, pumpkins at the farmer's market, and politics-- toss-up politics. The second Congressional district, with redrawn borders, has no incumbent and two fiercely competitive candidates. Races like this one between Republican Chris Chocola and Democrat Jill Long Thompson could determine the balance of power in the House.
LIZ JACKSON, Cooking Instructor: Everybody that lives in the area that I've been talking to, we've been receiving two, three phone calls a day from pollsters. I don't think in my lifetime I'll ever have as much impact on national politics as I will in this election.
GWEN IFILL: Liz Jackson teaches bread baking at the Cookery in downtown Laporte.
LIZ JACKSON: I'm going to be doing croissants in December.
GWEN IFILL: Like most Indiana voters, she supported President Bush. But she is not an automatic Republican vote this time. The campaign, she says, has been too negative. Plus, she is not convinced the U.S. should launch war against Iraq.
LIZ JACKSON: I personally think that we have no business starting something at this point with the world against us. Yes, Saddam Hussein is a bully, and at this point if he is going to do anything about it, I would rather have the support of the world behind us instead of us starting something and giving other people in the world more reason to hate us. It just makes us look like an aggressor, and then we look like the bad guy.
GWEN IFILL: Down the street at Louie's cafe, owner Louie Vasilarakos says America has no choice but to act. He, too, is a swing voter.
LOUIE VASILARAKOS, Café Owner: Well, I'll tell you why. Because what good is it to be rich or have money if you're dead? We help everybody, we take care of everybody. We took care of Germany. We took care of Russia when they were down, and now they don't want to help with Iraq. I'm against a war, but the thing is when somebody has you against a corner, what are you going to do? You've got to stand up as Americans.
GWEN IFILL: In some ways, this is a classic local campaign, with races for county assessor and prosecutor also on the ballot. But it has drawn intense national interest. Domestic issues dominate, but both candidates have said they support the President on U.S. Intervention in Iraq, something the voters are still debating. Steelworker Mike Pearish stopped by Louie's for a bite with his wife, Rachel.
MIKE PEARISH, Steelworker: I'm very cautious about war. I participated in desert storm; I was over there. I felt we did not finish what we should have. We started it; we should have finished it. But I also am a little hesitant to go over there and do something that we shouldn't do. There's either a good reason for it or there isn't, and honestly I don't think I've heard yet if there is.
GWEN IFILL: This Iraq debate happens in coffee shops and living rooms; not, for the most part, on the campaign trail, where a blistering ad campaign has drowned out almost everything else.
CHOCOLA COMMERCIAL: In Congress, Jill Long Thompson was rated a bigger spender than Ted Kennedy: More welfare, a 21 percent spending hike, and, with Hillary Clinton, she tried to increase taxes and spending even more.
LONG THOMPSON COMMERCIAL: Chocola's company cut health benefits for future retirees by nearly $1 million while handing out over $1 million in bonuses to company executives. And in 1999, Chocola's company laid off Hoosier workers while giving himself and his executives bonuses.
GWEN IFILL: Such ads are aimed at voters like Lew Kyes, a high school systems administrator. Kyes remembers he had a tough time finding work, and he's worried about the economy.
LEW KYES, Computer Systems Administrator: I left my former company, and it was really tough finding another job. I have concerns, and I think it's a trickle-down effect type of thing, and I think with all the money we're spending with Afghanistan, war there, and the money going overseas, I think we're spending way more than what we have, and we're not paying attention to us.
GWEN IFILL: The most recent polls show a complete dead heat: Thompson at 46 percent, Chocola at 45 percent. Only 9 percent of voters remain undecided, so the campaigns are in overdrive.
CHRIS CHOCOLA: You know, the President of the United States was here. He came here to say there is only one candidate in this race that will truly stand shoulder to shoulder with him. There is only one candidate that will work with him to support our men and women in uniform, especially at this very difficult time.
GWEN IFILL: The President and Vice President and Speaker of the House have all raised money for Chocola, who nearly unseated Democrat Tim Roemer two years ago.
SPOKESPERSON: Got some good stuff on you today.
GWEN IFILL: By contrast, Jill Long Thompson, who once served as a deputy assistant secretary of agriculture for President Clinton, has brought in no national Democrat. In fact, she never mentions bill Clinton by name. She's far more likely to link herself to the current President.
JILL LONG THOMPSON: I'm from a military family, and I am very proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with President bush.
GWEN IFILL: This does not always work on the campaign trail.
MAN: You're shoulder to shoulder with George, right? I hope he's fine.
JILL LONG TOMPSON: I stand shoulder to shoulder with you also.
MAN: No, you don't.
WOMAN: ...Your major constitutional authority and you give it to the President!
MAN: We believe in a loyal opposition. The Democratic party is not part of the Republican party.
SPOKESPERSON: We are so betrayed.
SPOKESPERSON: You're all right.
SPOKESPERSON: Let's tell everybody to come.
GWEN IFILL: At our request, South Bend resident Marilyn Eber, who runs a community services group, invited friends-- Democrats and Republicans-- for Sunday brunch and campaign talk.
CHRISTINE POCHERT, School Administrator: I think that there are really three important issues that I'd like to hear from a positive side: Education, health care and the economy. I think that if we don't educate our children, we're in trouble; if we don't care about the health of the populace, we're in trouble; and if we don't take care of our seniors, we're pitiful.
GWEN IFILL: Have you not heard that?
CHRISTINE POCHERT: I've heard the negative slings back and forth about one or the other's attitudes against it. I haven't heard, "well, what can we do about it in the future?"
GWEN IFILL: Is it possible that it works? Leaves a taint in your mind about the other candidate?
ANN ROSEN, Child Development Coordinator: Of course it's possible, but is that what we want for our democracy? That we figured out this way to influence people through this negativity and not educating people and giving them the information to really think - and I don't know if it's a question so much of whether it works on the short run to get you elected when you end up with an electorate that's disinvolved and has this very negative feeling about the politicians?
REG WAGLE, Memorial Hospital Foundation: I'm not sure that it's a bad thing. As long as it's truthful, then I think each of us have to then be somewhat discriminating in who has used the truth well or to the right ends and those who have not. And if we believe that they have either misinterpreted or misled or misstated the truth, then that may be a reason not to vote for them.
VIOLET HAWKINS, United Way: We don't get a chance to really look at the issues closely because the candidates present them in such a simplistic and often superficial way that we don't get a grasp of what their position is, no less what the underlying issues are.
GWEN IFILL: Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American Studies at Notre Dame, says a partial culprit is campaign finance reform. This midterm election, he said, is the last chance for many big donors to pour unregulated, or soft, money into federal campaigns.
ROBERT SCHMUHL, Notre Dame University: We've become almost a landfill or a dumping ground for soft money. And that soft money, by and large, buys television time.
GWEN IFILL: And negative advertising.
ROBERT SCHMUHL: That's really what people are talking about-- talking about to the point of saying, you know, "I don't turn on the television anymore because I don't want my children to see the kinds of ads that are on the screen." They are driving the agenda. The charge and countercharge of the ads drives really the discourse of the race.
GWEN IFILL: Republican Chris Chocola says he runs ads attacking his opponent because it helps him to stand out.
CHRIS CHOCOLA: In a very competitive race like this, I would like nothing better than to run ads all day long saying "I'm a great guy and I'm going to do great things." The reality is people don't remember our positive ads nearly as much.
ANCHOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to Politically Speaking.
GWEN IFILL: The candidates met face to face for the seventh time on this Sunday public television program, and much of their debate was about the debate.
JILL LONG THOMPSON: But you are distorting things, Mr. Chocola, and you've been doing that throughout the campaign. And you started in the middle of August when you said that I had supported raiding the Social Security Trust Fund. You know that those things are not true, and I don't know why you run that kind of campaign.
CHRIS CHOCOLA: She says she's a fiscal conservative. She had a higher spending rating than Ted Kennedy. She says she's an independent voice. She voted 90 percent, much higher than the average, with her party leadership.
GWEN IFILL: This would not be Thompson's first time in Congress. She served three terms in the House from another Indiana district.
JILL LONG THOMPSON: Well, when I was in Congress before, I was known as somebody who could work very effectively with both Democrats and Republicans because my commitment is to the people of our country, to the people of the state of Indiana, and you have to put partisan politics aside. And I think it's important to have someone like myself, a Democrat who is very fiscally responsible and moderate on the issues that makes it possible to build coalitions in the middle, because that's when you can really get work done.
GWEN IFILL: Chocola also plays to Hoosiers' independent streak.
CHRIS CHOCOLA: I'm not sure anybody votes a straight ticket in Indiana, which may not be a bad thing, but I think that they are going to vote for the person they view is going to support our President, because he is very well-respected and popular here; the person that's going to support our men and women in uniform with all the things going on in the Middle East. And those are the two things that are really going to drive voter behavior on Election Day.
JILL LONG THOMPSON: Thank you so much.
GWEN IFILL: But drive voters to which candidate? The answer to that question has party leaders holding their breaths.