LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. - Betting that a congressman will win re-election is like predicting that temperatures will soar in July. Well over 90 percent of the time, they do.
But this year, a number of sitting members of Congress in both parties are sure-fire losers. That's because they face challengers who, like themselves, already have a seat on Capitol Hill and are fighting them to keep it.
Incumbent-vs.-incumbent showdowns could go a long way toward determining who controls the House. With Congress divided almost evenly between the parties and relatively few competitive races nationwide, Democrats need just six seats to gain a majority, while Republicans are hoping to add to theirs.
Perhaps the most curious, and unusual, of these contests is playing out in the rapidly growing Republican suburbs north of Atlanta.
Reps. Bob Barr and John Linder are locked in a primary fight that is being closely watched by their colleagues in Washington. Unlike other member-against-member wrestling matches - all of which are in states that are losing House seats - the Republican duo condemn a Democratic redistricting scheme that sliced their old districts to pieces, even as Georgia was gaining two new seats.
Barr, among the most vocal and, thanks to cable TV, visible members of the House, is the state's best-known Republican. A leader in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, he drew attention earlier this year after filing a $30 million claim in a federal lawsuit that says Clinton and others hurt Barr's reputation and inflicted emotional distress on him.
Linder, a one-time ally of Newt Gingrich, has accused Barr of being selfish in choosing to face off against him. Some Republicans wanted Barr to run for re-election in a neighboring district carved from the remnants of his current one. But that would have exposed Barr to greater risk of defeat in November because the Democrats who drew the lines put more Democratic neighborhoods in the district.
A quiet-spoken Minnesota native (both men came from the Midwest and have very similar conservative voting records), Linder points out his role as an inside player in the Republican House. He is clearly wary of going up against one of his party's fiercest debaters despite internal polls that, he says, give him the lead.
To date, their joint campaign appearances have been cordial. Barr's sometimes self-deprecating style in his home state is a far cry from his national reputation for hot rhetoric and media self-promotion.
"I have never been accused of being a rocket scientist," Barr, a former federal prosecutor and CIA analyst, tells voters at a commuter college here. "Thank goodness you don't have to be a rocket scientist to get things done" in Washington.
Accomplishments he is promoting in his campaign include a measure he sponsored allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages and his role in creating a water-sharing compact among Southern states.
"Everybody talks about how bitter this race is," Linder says. He adds, with a slight tone of wonder in his voice, that Barr "doesn't act that way on the campaign trail." But Linder says he isn't expecting the race to remain gentlemanly much longer.
"Bob is a Pat Buchanan Republican, and this is a Ronald Reagan district," Linder says.
Of his rival's continuing legal fight with the former president, Linder shrugs and says dryly that "a significant portion of the district has discovered that Clinton is no longer president."
Barr calls Linder's description of him "silly" and says his lawsuit against Clinton wasn't filed for political purposes and has nothing to do with energizing conservatives to support him.
"It doesn't bother me if people see that I continue to stand for the rule of law," Barr says.
The lawsuit, filed three years ago and amended in March, accuses the former president, his adviser James Carville and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt of conspiring to retaliate against Barr and other House impeachment managers. Hustler published a lengthy article about Barr that the congressman claims was a smear job engineered by Carville.
To attract money and votes, both candidates are recruiting outside help. Linder has bought in Reps. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania and David Dreier of California. Barr has featured Steve Forbes; National Rifle Association head Charlton Heston, who is now appearing in a TV ad for Barr; and former Reagan aide Oliver L. North. Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel in the Clinton impeachment case, is to appear at a fund-raising luncheon next month.
Barr is predicting low voter turnout, which would likely favor him by magnifying the votes of core conservatives. If more independents and moderate Democrats show up, Linder's chances would improve. The race is "a coin flip," says Whit Ayres, a pollster for Barr.