SCRANTON, Pa. - Don Sherwood, the only active car dealer in Congress, gets where he wants to go by driving himself in a red 2001 Chevrolet Silverado extended-cab pickup.
His Democratic opponent in the Nov. 7 election has run a campaign commercial on TV here suggesting that Sherwood and his friends use chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces.
Maybe it's a cheap shot, or perhaps it's legitimate political symbolism.
Either way, the campaign hardball helps to illustrate that Sherwood's re-election bid is one of the nation's most crucial congressional races this year - and not just for automobile industry people who want to see how one of their own fares.
The contest between Republican Sherwood and Democrat Pat Casey is among just 15 or so highly competitive races across the country that will determine which party controls the House of Representatives next year.
So, national Democratic Party money paid for the Rolls-Royce commercial on TV stations in Sherwood's northeastern Pennsylvania district.
Casey, a 34-year-old Scranton lawyer and an heir to one of the top political family legacies in Pennsylvania, said the point is right on target.
'There's nothing wrong with being a millionaire, but when you vote in the best interests of yourself and not your constituents, your constituents have a right to know that,' Casey said after a debate with Sherwood in a high school auditorium last week.
Casey said a tax cut supported by his opponent would have saved a millionaire such as Sherwood $50,000 a year but would have given the average taxpayer in the 10th Congressional District of Pennsylvania a break of about 40 cents a day.
Such populism makes political sense in this district, which spans all or parts of nine counties, featuring tree-covered mountains, agricultural valleys, the old mining and industrial city of Scranton and a string of smaller towns like it. Much of the area was on a steady economic slide, along with the anthracite coal industry, for most of the past half century.
But Sherwood, citing the lowest unemployment rate in the district in 30 years, said Casey's tune is the wrong one now. Even in previously hard-pressed Lackawanna County, including Scranton, the jobless rate is down to 3.9 percent.
'He has run a class-warfare campaign. He tries to make all business appear to be bad,' Sherwood said. 'I know that you need to love both employees and employers. We can't make business the scapegoat for all of the ills of society.'
Sherwood, 59, a car dealer since 1967, believes voters elected him in 1998 because they valued his experience in building a business, being a part of the community and serving on a local school board. He succeeded the area's longtime congressman, the powerful Republican Joe McDade, who retired after 36 years in office.
Now, after Sherwood's first two years in office, he says voters can appreciate the fact that he kept his promises. Or at least he tried to.
He and other House Republicans, for example, voted to repeal the estate tax - a top lobbying goal of car dealer associations in Washington - and to ease the marriage tax penalty. But President Clinton vetoed both of those bills.
'Two-wage-earner families are the type of people that buy automobiles,' Sherwood said. The marriage-penalty bill 'would have saved 54,000 working families in my congressional district alone $1,400 apiece,' he said. 'That's a couple of car payments, you know. Or they can put a new roof on the house or pay some tuition or buy a washer and dryer.'
Despite such setbacks, Sherwood said in an interview last week that he's confident he'll have a bigger win this time than when he first ran against Casey in 1998.
The margin couldn't have been much smaller two years ago. Sherwood won by just 515 votes out of 173,000 cast.
In the last campaign, Casey made some remarks about the 'used-car dealer' trying to sell people a lemon. Sherwood supporters believe the tactic backfired. It hasn't been repeated so far this year.
High-pressure salesmanship does not appear to be part of his makeup. Sherwood, the father of three grown daughters, exhibits a low-key affability and even temperament. He has white hair and wears glasses. Even to a crowd, he speaks in a steady, moderate tone.
The national and state Democratic Parties are not the only outside forces trying to influence the outcome this time. The AFL-CIO and Sierra Club have run so-called issue ads on Casey's behalf. Sherwood has been backed by national and state Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and a health-care coalition that includes some pharmaceutical companies - and, of course, by car dealers' national political action committees.
Sherwood has raised about $1.7 million in regular campaign contributions for the race. Casey has collected about $1.3 million so far. Spending by outside forces will lift the total cost far higher.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Even though all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be filled Nov. 7, political analysts estimate that about 15 races in the country are too close to call.
The Sherwood-Casey contest is one of them. And control of the House of Representatives hangs in the balance. Republicans have an edge, 222 to 209, with two independents and two vacancies. A handful of races, swinging one way or the other, will make the difference. The party in control names the chairmen of congressional committees and sets the legislative agenda.
While incumbency is an advantage that Sherwood did not have two years ago, other factors work against him.
In 1998 he was on the Republican ticket along with Pennsylvania's Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., two big vote-getters.
This year he shares the ticket with Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, who has yet to put Pennsylvania in the column of states he's likely to win.
Casey, on the other hand, is on the ballot with his brother, Bob Casey Jr., the state auditor general, who is seeking re-election. The job is a high-profile office in Pennsylvania, used by ambitious politicians to build their reputations as guardians of the public interest.
The Casey brothers are sons of a former popular state governor, Bob Casey, who died in May after living seven years with a transplanted heart and liver.
So, there is the possibility of some sentimental votes for the Casey brothers, who gave a nationally televised tribute to their father at the Democratic National Convention in August. Eight years ago the elder Casey was barred from the convention for his anti-abortion views.
Abortion is not an issue in the congressional race. Sherwood and Casey both oppose it. Both also support gun-owner rights, a necessity in hunting-happy Pennsylvania.
But for voters who will conscientiously pick between Sherwood and Casey on the basis of their individual campaign positions, there are substantial differences to consider.
Some, such as competing plans for tax relief, prescription drugs and Social Security, mirror the top disagreements between the presidential contenders this year.
Sherwood is the owner of Sherwood Chevrolet-Pontiac and Western Star Inc. in Tunkhannock, Pa., and he is a partner in Sun Auto Group, which has Buick, Pontiac, GMC, Chrysler, Plymouth, Chevrolet and Isuzu franchises in two locations.
Sherwood said he wants to encourage other dealers to be involved in the political process.
For him, he said, 'It was the difference of whether you sent an experienced businessman who could take his business experience to Washington with him or a young attorney who would be for more taxes and more spending.'