By FRAN SILVERMAN
AS the last Republican United States representative left in Connecticut - and in all of New England - Christopher Shays of the Fourth District is familiar with close contests. He came within about 6,000 votes of losing his Congressional seat in 2006 at a time when constituents were angry about the war in Iraq, which he voted to support.
Now, he faces perhaps the closest race yet as he tries for an 11th term, running against Jim Himes, a Democrat from Greenwich, at a time when constituents are angry about the economy and the Wall Street bailout. Mr. Shays, 62, voted in favor of both versions of the bailout bill despite the fact that constituents who contacted his office were against it, 30 to 1.
"I'm not going to play Russian roulette with Main Street," Mr. Shays said recently during an interview at his home in Bridgeport overlooking Long Island Sound.
Mr. Shay's district in southwestern Connecticut is one of the wealthiest in the nation, encompassing portions of Fairfield and New Haven Counties and the communities of Greenwich, Stamford, Bridgeport and Westport.
Once a Republican stronghold, the Fourth District has voted for a Democrat in every presidential race since 1996. Political experts say Mr. Shays has hung onto his seat because he has been seen as an independent - fiscally conservative but socially progressive - and is seen to be effective in constituency work.
But this election comes against the backdrop of an economic crisis and a presidential election. Not only is the state considered to be safely in Senator Barack Obama's column, but state polls also show the Democratic presidential candidate running strong in Mr. Shays's district. That trend, coupled with what the secretary of state's office says is a record number of voters registered in Democratic-leaning Bridgeport this election, may present the biggest challenge ever to Mr. Shays, who has been in office for 21 years.
Still, political experts say that while voters may be upset with President Bush's administration, they often take other issues into account when voting for their own Congressional representatives.
"I'm not sure people in this district are blaming Shays for the problems we are having," said Gary L. Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. "The issues Shays has favored have appealed to so many constituent groups, such as housing for the poor, health care, pro-choice. He just seems to placate every aspect of the Fourth District with his positions."
Based on Mr. Shays's voting record, Congressional Quarterly ranked him the No. 1 moderate Republican in the House.
A poll conducted from Sept. 22 to Sept. 25 by WSHU Radio/Sacred Heart University showed Mr. Shays leading Mr. Himes by 10 percentage points, with 30 percent of voters undecided. Professor Rose said that two-thirds of undecided voters often cast their ballots for the challenger. The Sacred Heart poll had a 5 percentage point margin of sampling error.
Mr. Shays said he was not surprised that the race was close. "I realize my district hates Bush," he said.
With the Nov. 4 election less than a month away, the economy has become the dominant issue in the race.
Mr. Himes, a former investment banker for Goldman Sachs, who has said he would have voted for the bailout legislation also, has tried to tie Mr. Shays to the Bush administration's economic policies.
He has reminded voters that in September, Mr. Shays said that the fundamentals of the economy were sound, and he has questioned why, with Mr. Shays's position as a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee, on which he has served since 2001, he has failed to take measures to prevent the banking meltdowns.
Mr. Himes, who has raised more than $2 million - more money than any of Mr. Shays's previous challengers - said Mr. Shays was out of touch with his constituency on the two main issues on the minds of voters.
"He was dead wrong on Iraq and has supported the administration's disastrous economic policies," Mr. Himes said during a recent interview at his campaign headquarters in Norwalk. He likes to remind voters of how often Mr. Shays voted to support President Bush's policies.
In 2002, Mr. Shays voted 82 percent of the time with the Bush administration, but in 2007, Mr. Shays voted 33 percent of the time with the president, according to Mr. Shays's campaign.
Mr. Himes said Mr. Shays's policy of supporting deregulation left the economy vulnerable to abusive and reckless actions by banks. Having worked as an investment banker, Mr. Himes said he knew what needed to be done to better regulate the financial industry.
Mr. Shays bristles at his opponent's criticism, saying he was one of the first to voice concerns about lack of oversight of the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, supporting legislation in 2003 to require the two companies to comply with the same reporting requirements as publicly traded companies despite fierce opposition and pressure from his party and lobbyists. In 2006, he said, he raised concerns about the increased commercial operations of banks in a letter to the comptroller of the currency. But Mr. Himes retorts: "While the basement was full of dynamite, Chris Shays was checking on the smoke in the attic."
Mr. Shays also says in campaign literature and commercials that he has the hope of Mr. Obama and the straight talk of Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate. He said he supports Mr. McCain and Mr. McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, saying he views them as fellow reformers. And he said he wondered why Mr. Himes was running against him when the two hold similar positions on many issues including health care, support of Roe v. Wade and the environment - both support a continued ban on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Mr. Himes said Mr. Shays sided with Republicans on close votes. Nine out of 10 times, he said, Mr. Shays voted with his party on issues like tax cuts for the middle class and timetables for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. "He voted against withdrawal timelines five times," Mr. Himes said. "He's been dishonest with us. He says what he needs to say to get elected."
Mr. Shays does favor a timeline, he said, and has voted for one that includes withdrawing most combat troops from Iraq by December 2009. He has said that he voted against other proposals that he thought withdrew troops too quickly.
As House candidates, Mr. Himes ranked No. 2 and Mr. Shays No. 3 in the amount of campaign contributions received from securities and investment firms in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. Mr. Himes received $393,254, and Mr. Shays received $362,720. Mr. Himes has also received contributions from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent more than $300,000 to air two television commercials on his behalf.
The two candidates have scheduled seven debates beginning on Tuesday.
"This race will be decided by a tiny margin," Mr. Himes said. "But instead of one issue, the war, that almost got him beaten, we've got two where he's been wrong, the war and the economy."
Mr. Shays said he is taking nothing for granted.
"People wrestle with, can I be an Obama and a Shays supporter. I can work with McCain or Obama," he said. "I listen, I learn, I help, I lead and I listen again."