WASHINGTON -- Think of it as a high school student government contest -- but one with infinitely higher stakes and, perhaps, nastier partisans.
Maryland Representative Steny H. Hoyer is pitted against Michigan Representative David E. Bonior in a race to succeed Representative William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania as the new "whip" -- a powerful post that ranks third in the leadership hierarchy and puts its occupant in direct line of succession to the Speakership.
The vote is set for July 11 and Mr. Hoyer, considered the dark horse after Mr. Gray last month announced his departure, appears to have narrowed the gap with Mr. Bonior.
With a tightened race, the campaigning has assumed a new intensity. Now comes the question of which of the two candidates has made more friends -- or enemies -- during his sprint up the congressional ladder.
"It's an exercise in unpleasantness," said Representative Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas.
Congressional leadership races are invariably depicted as duels between young Turks and the old guard, between a more moderate party and a more outspokenly partisan one.
But in the end, such competitions hinge on one issue -- raw popularity. This year's contest promises to prove the rule.
"Strip away all of the other stuff, that's ultimately what you're left with," said Representative Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., a Bonior supporter who chairs the House Budget Committee. "We're all back in high school."
As in those prep school days, it's the little things that can hurt a campaign; slights and gripes of the past come back to haunt a candidate years later.
Representative Bonior, for example, is enjoying the support of such mighty "Old Bulls" as Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Representative John D. Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Representative William D. Ford, D-Mich., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
"If I had their support, this race would be over," said Mr. Hoyer, a bit wistfully.
In all likelihood, Messrs. Dingell and Ford would never support Mr. Hoyer for the simple reason that they hail from the same state as Mr. Bonior; lawmakers from one state traditionally close ranks behind a leadership candidate from among their ranks. But even without that same-state pull, said one Midwesterner, "they'd vote for anybody before they'd vote for Steny."
Why? Because Mr. Hoyer has aggressively appointed younger Democrats -- lawmakers who have not earned seniority and its concomitant clout, through usual channels -- to special task forces assigned to study issues and policies that might normally fall within the purview of traditional committees. Mr. Hoyer's exertions have irritated the Old Bulls to no end, even as they have endeared him to some of the newcomers.
"Dingell's twisted a lot of arms," said Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., a Ways and Means member supporting Mr. Hoyer. One member of the committee explained his support for Mr. Bonior this way: "I don't [expletive] with the chairman."
Meanwhile, Mr. Hoyer appears to be enjoying an advantage among moderate and conservative Democrats -- a contention hotly denied by the Bonior camp -- in part because he is perceived to be the more moderate of the two.
"There's a feeling that the Democratic party is heading out of the mainstream, and that we need someone to lead us who more closely represents that mainstream thought," said Mr. Stenholm, a Hoyer supporter and leader of a group of conservative Democrats that voted to endorse him last week.
But even this seemingly straightforward explanation is deceptive. Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Bonior have virtually identical -- and enthusiastically liberal -- voting records. Indeed, in 1988 both men received identical ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, while the American Conservative Union actually gave Mr. Bonior a slightly higher rating (a 4 out of 100), than it gave Mr. Hoyer (a zero).
And so, the gossip around Capitol Hill holds that Mr. Hoyer won the support of Mr. Stenholm's conservatives because Mr. Bonior managed to lock up the support of most of the black members of the House -- a motive Mr. Stenholm denies.
"The Southerners wanted to maximize their political influence in the face of a black caucus bloc," stated one Capitol insider who, like most Hill gossipers, insisted on anonymity.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hoyer has won the support of a group of self-styled moderates led by Representative Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma. Why? Because Mr. Hoyer comes off as the more moderate candidate?
If you believe one prevalant theory, it is, as one House source put it, "because McCurdy hates Bonior." The two squared off during the 1980s on U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan rebels (Mr. McCurdy was for, Mr. Bonior against), and relations between the two have never been the same since. "I'd rather not comment on that," said one Bonior staffer. Mr. McCurdy was unavailable for comment.