WILMINGTON, Del. -- William V. Roth Jr., a four-term senator best known for a tax cut, store-bought hair and a giant dog named Thor, has earned another distinction this election season.
At a time when voter discontent is expected to result in the ouster of five or more of his Democratic colleagues, Mr. Roth is considered the Republican senator most likely to be tossed out with them. But the reason has little to do with partisan politics.
At 73, with 28 years in Congress behind him, Senator Roth has provided a ready target for Charles Oberly III, an energetic 47-year-old Democratic challenger who has raised the incumbent's age and longevity to the top of voter concerns.
"I think he's too old to handle the job," said Joseph Pease, 66, a retired DuPont employee and former Roth supporter who was waiting for his wife recently outside the Acme food store in the Republican suburb of Hockessin. Echoing the comments of many other voters, Mr. Pease said he based this view on discussions with the senator, as well as on newspaper reports of occasional Roth flubs at public appearances.
"I would have liked very much to see another Republican challenge him, but I'll probably vote for Oberly because I think we need a change," Mr. Pease said.
Because Republicans are within reach of gaining the seven seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats, the outcome here could tip the balance one way or the other.
Delaware Democrats have a modest advantage over Republicans in voter registration, but there is also a significant bloc of registered independents, and the state has a long history of ticket-splitting.
"This is an extremely important race for the Democrats," said Elizabeth Wilner, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, which rates Mr. Roth the most vulnerable of 10 Republican senators up for re-election.
The stakes are so high that Thomas A. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who hopes to become the next Senate majority leader, has helped Mr. Oberly raise much of his $1.5 million campaign fund. That puts Mr. Oberly's total close to Mr. Roth's $2 million.
Oberly may be right
The Roth-Oberly race is more difficult to handicap than many other Senate contests because no independent polls have been conducted. But random interviews with Delaware voters support the view of Mr. Oberly's pollsters that the race is very close.
"I'm hearing a lot of complaints from people that Roth's staff is running his office, and we have never been able to get him out for a community association meeting," said Angela Butler, 33, a Democrat from Madison Park. "But the question is whether they all come to the polls on Election Day."
While many Democratic candidates elsewhere are struggling under the burden of President Clinton's unpopularity and a sour view of their party in general, Mr. Oberly is trying to help Delaware buck the national trend by steering hard to the right of his party's leadership.
A three-term Delaware attorney general, he is promoting his record of political independence as a state prosecutor and offering a platform that differs little from that of the conservative Republican incumbent.
"He's coming my way because he knows this is what people in Delaware want," Senator Roth said.
Mr. Oberly says he never raises the incumbent's age on the stump. But after sponsoring several months of TV and radio spots that raised the issue indirectly, Mr. Oberly doesn't have to.
The physical contrast between the two candidates is striking. In this tiny state, where voters expect personal contact with their politicians, Senator Roth works the supermarket and bowling-ally circuit with Thor, his giant St. Bernard, who lies at his feet acting as both an attraction and a shield.
Lean as a boy but with a noticeable toupee and a pale, craggy face that reveals its years, the senator stands passively as constituents approach to pet the dog or sometimes raise a personal problem. Often, they just wave self-consciously or ignore him altogether.
Mr. Oberly has thinning hair but a youthful grin and a manic style reminiscent of comedian Don Rickles -- without the nasty edge. He tends to grab voters as they pass. Mr. Oberly has maintained a jogging streak of at least two miles a day since February 1986, which lends itself to photo opportunities with the candidate in shorts on the running trail.
Age, not issues
The Roth campaign contends that Mr. Oberly has focused on age because he has no other basis on which to attack the popular incumbent. On health care, welfare reform, and the fiscal issues of tax cuts and spending limits that have been a hallmark of Mr. Roth's career, Mr. Oberly has drawn few distinctions.
In his own attack ads, the senator has hammered at Mr. Oberly's lack of experience with issues outside criminal justice.
"I think people are frustrated because they don't see government solving problems," the senator said in an interview. "The last thing we need now is to elect people to office who require on-the-job training."