When this year's U.S. Senate campaign started, the conventional wisdom was that Spokane Representative George Nethercutt was a sacrificial lamb, challenging incumbent Patty Murray just to keep the high-profile senator pinned down at home rather than out on the road raising money for other Democrats. But the race has not proceeded according to script, and is turning out to be the most pitched--and nastiest--battle of the year.

Knocking off an incumbent senator is never easy, but national Republicans believe Nethercutt has a realistic shot of unseating Murray. The race has tightened: The Nethercutt camp touts a recent independent Washington State poll taken by Strategic Visions, a Republican pollster in Atlanta, that has the race in single digits, with Murray leading 49 percent to 41 percent. A poll last week for a Spokane television station showed Murray slightly farther ahead, leading 47 percent to 37 percent.

And Nethercutt has bucked the odds before. He defeated Speaker of the House Tom Foley during the Republican landslide of 1994, and national Republicans are clearly high on his candidacy: He was one of six Senate candidates given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in New York and has had a string of party heavyweights come out to campaign for him, including President Bush.

In the contest, shaping up as a high-octane showdown with national implications, voters have a clear choice. Murray is one of the Senate's most prominent liberals, while Nethercutt is a staunch conservative hand-picked by the Bush administration. Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group, gives Murray a lifetime 92 rating (on a 100-point scale); Nethercutt scores a lowly 3. Conversely, Nethercutt receives a 91 rating from the American Conservative Union, while Murray scores a... 3.

Despite such ratings, both candidates have portrayed themselves as relative moderates while bashing their opponent as extreme. Murray campaign spokesperson Alex Glass rejects the characterization of Murray as a doctrinaire liberal, claiming that Murray's efforts to enhance port security and her work on the veterans' affairs committee are "not typical liberal issues." Nethercutt, in turn, has run a television ad that implies he is the ideological heir of John F. Kennedy. "I'm not the extreme edge of the political spectrum," Nethercutt said at a press conference during the national convention.

Nethercutt, a former adoption attorney, is a soft-spoken, grandfatherly sort with a low-impact demeanor who has served in congress since 1994. Murray was first elected in 1992 as a self-proclaimed "mom in tennis shoes," but has since become a Democratic power-player in Washington, D.C. In the process, she has proven herself a prodigious fundraiser, having brought in more than $8.6 million so far in this election cycle. Nethercutt has raised about $3 million less.

Both candidates have had their share of controversy. In 2000, Nethercutt was famously dubbed "the Weasel King" by Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau after breaking a term-limits pledge, but was reelected anyway. In 2002, Murray was widely slammed when she said during a school visit that Osama bin Laden was popular in poor countries because he built schools, hospitals, and roads there while "we haven't done that."

The two agree on little or nothing, and the campaign is already heated, with both sides trading accusations that the other is relying on unfair attacks and unbridled negativity. Nethercutt has been widely dinged by the press for running a radio ad that claimed Murray tried to cut the Coast Guard budget; in fact, she advocated raising it. The Nethercutt camp, in turn, asserts that Murray went negative first, and has lowered the tone of the campaign by running radio ads calling Nethercutt a liar.

"She's whacking me and called me names," Nethercutt complained at a press conference with local reporters in a New York hotel during the Republican National Convention.

Nethercutt has worked to portray Murray as weak on defense, while Democrats have painted Nethercutt as too close to the Bush administration and too conservative for the state.

That there is no love lost between the two sides is unsurprising since the two are ideological opposites. Murray is completely pro-choice; Nethercutt opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is at stake. Murray voted against the Iraq war; Nethercutt is a strong supporter of the president's decision to invade. Nethercutt strongly supported the Bush tax cuts; Murray voted against them, arguing they were tilted too far to the rich.