WILMINGTON, Del. -- No one has broken any china yet, but genteel Delaware is in the midst of an unusual political family squabble that may have an impact well beyond its borders.
Republican Sen. William V. Roth Jr. and Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper, two of the state's most popular public officials, are pitted against each other in a fight for political survival over Roth's seat.
Victory for Carper would mean a loss of influence for the tiny state -- Roth's prominent position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee -- and might tip the balance of Senate control to the Democrats, who are four seats short.
Victory for 79-year-old Roth would, under Senate rules, buy him only two more years as finance chairman but sidetrack the career of 53-year-old Carper just as he is attempting to build on a successful eight years in Dover.
As the contest moved into high gear this week, the governor charged that the six-term senator has wasted his powerful position in Washington, partly because he's too cozy with the health care industry he oversees.
The senator fired back that the governor has forfeited $6 million in federal health care aid for Delaware's poor children. "I intend to correct that," Roth said.
In a three-county state where many voters know both candidates well, the competition between them "is very awkward and very personal," said William H. Duncan, 70, a retired physician from New Castle, who turned out Monday night to catch a rare joint appearance of the two.
A rarity in politics, Roth is bookish, taciturn and a bit shy. But he shares with the wise-cracking, puppy-dog-friendly Carper a job approval rating above 70 percent and has no intention of yielding his job without a fight. The latest polls show the race dead even.
A year ago, Roth appeared to be the most vulnerable GOP senator in the country, with an independent Mason-Dixon poll giving Carper a 10 percentage-point lead. Survey respondents said they thought "younger, active, vibrant leadership for the future" was more important than protecting Roth's seniority and power.
But more recent surveys suggest that Carper's lead has vanished as Roth, drawing on campaign funds in excess of $3 million, twice as much as Carper's, has trumpeted his role in shaping tax cut bills, health care legislation and the pension savings plan that bears his name -- the Roth IRA.
"I think it's going to be the closest Senate race in the nation," predicted Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican and the state's lone congressman. "I can't detect any kind of trend at all. I think people are really ambivalent about it."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee still has high hopes for the Delaware race and is providing financial help to Carper to match an estimated $1 million worth of issue advertising on Roth's behalf by health care industries eager to please the powerful committee chairman.
As the contest enters its final weeks, Carper is racing about the state holding rallies, staging news conferences and working lunch counter crowds, while Roth's committee post keeps him center stage in Washington as Congress struggles to complete its work.
Roth's limited time on the campaign trail is no handicap but part of a calculated strategy to let his work speak for him through devices such as testimonial advertisements by grateful constituents. It also allows the third-oldest member of the Senate to avoid contrasts with the boyish-looking governor, who doesn't dare raise the age issue.
Roth dismisses his age as irrelevant.
"I haven't had any people raise it with me," he said in an interview. "As a matter of fact, the doctors and scientists tell me people are going to be 120, so I've got a long time to go."
But the senator's contemporaries are among the first to say it's time for him to retire.
"He's been down there too long," said Christine Baer, 81, a Republican and longtime Roth backer from Newark who is planning to vote for Carper.
Seeking other ways to gain traction, Carper is questioning whether Delaware has benefited from Roth's congressional stature.
The Democrat began a series of radio spots last week complaining that Roth had voted with the GOP majority in 1995 in an attempt blocked by President Clinton to weaken federal nursing home standards.
Further, Carper complains that Roth's efforts to fashion legislation providing prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries aren't accomplishing anything because no bill is likely to be enacted this year.
"Seniority is a great thing, but it's not getting this job done," the governor told an audience of nearly 200 at a Medical Society forum.
Roth responded tartly that he would have to use his Washington clout to rescue Delaware from a $6 million loss in federal aid resulting from the governor's failure to identify all 13,000 children in the state believed to be eligible for a new health care program.
Carper said his administration had located all but perhaps 2,000 of the children eligible for the coverage. "We'll find them," he said. In all, 40 states had similar problems finding all the children who qualified for the program.
Even this mild flurry of charge and countercharge may prove distasteful to voters in a state not accustomed to the sort of slugfests now under way in such places as New York, Missouri and Virginia.
"It's a tricky game in Delaware; we have strong norms against individual attacks," said Joseph Pika, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware. "But Carper has failed to articulate a reason to make a change, while Roth has remained very steady. Carper has got to be more aggressive."