Washington - Upstate New York, a cradle of modern party politics, is the unlikely site of a showdown between a couple of Maryland pols, Michael Steele and Chris Van Hollen.
Their minidrama is playing out in the background of the first voter test of Barack Obama's presidency, a special election to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives.
It opened up when then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, had the good fortune to get appointed to Hillary Clinton's spot in the U.S. Senate. The March 31 election gives both parties a chance to score an opening victory in the run-up to next year's House and Senate elections.
Steele, the Republican national chairman, has put himself on the line by making the New York contest a top '09 election challenge for his party.
The former Maryland lieutenant governor has visited the district twice to campaign for the Republican candidate, Jim Tedisco.
"We've come to play, and we've come to win," Steele declared in Albany last month.
At one time, a Republican victory looked like a cinch. Early polling showed the Republican far ahead in a district where Republican voters outnumber Democrats by a substantial margin.
Even though Obama carried the district narrowly last November, it voted for George W. Bush twice and had sent Republicans to Congress for decades until Gillibrand stole it away in 2006.
Steele is investing more than words. He has directed at least $200,000 of national party money into the state and dispatched early, on-the-ground help for Tedisco, a veteran state legislator.
But as the race developed, independent voters appear to have moved toward the Democratic candidate, Scott Murphy, a wealthy political outsider. Polls have tightened and the contest is seen as a virtual dead heat.
Stuart Rothenberg, a leading analyst of House elections, recently described the election as "a barnburner."
Despite Steele's involvement, special House elections are more typically tests for the national parties' competing House campaign committees.
Enter Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic committee. The congressman from Montgomery County recently served as co-host of a Washington fundraiser for his party's candidate, along with House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who traveled to the district to campaign.
Van Hollen's committee is investing heavily in the New York contest, though he has been much more low-profile than Steele. In an interview last month, he tried to keep expectations down, calling it "a tough seat to hold."
According to the Almanac of American Politics, the Hudson River, which flows through the district, "gave birth to America's passionate party politics." It was the home of President Martin Van Buren, credited with helping invent national political conventions and found the Democratic Party.
No matter which side comes out on top later this month, the results are sure to be invested with a degree of importance that far exceeds the filling of one seat out of 435 in the House.
Anti-Steele Republicans, smelling blood, have portrayed the New York vote as a litmus test for him. Some have even predicted that Steele will lose his job if the Republicans don't pick up the seat, a claim dismissed as nonsense by party insiders.
A better question is how much Steele would be helped personally by a Republican victory in a district that leans the Republican way. As a former head of the House Republican campaign committee, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said in a recent Politico interview, "the market has already discounted" the value of a win.
Meantime, Steele is doing the Democrats a favor by stealing the spotlight, while Van Hollen looks like the Marylander with more to gain and less to lose when New Yorkers vote.