If the ads and arguments airing in parts of Sacramento County are to be believed, the race for the 7th Congressional District is between "California's Rick Santorum" and former House Speaker "Nancy Pelosi's handpicked candidate."
The true contenders for the seat are Republican Rep. Dan Lungren and Elk Grove Democrat Ami Bera, facing off in a rematch that has become one of the country's most-watched congressional contests.
Lungren defeated Bera by seven percentage points in 2010, but the redrawing of district lines has made the race more competitive this time. The partisan leanings of both candidates have become a popular line of attack as they fight for votes from independents and moderates in a district now evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Their differences will be on display this afternoon as the candidates participate in a debate sponsored by The Bee, News10 and Capital Public Radio.
While the distance between them is significant, neither Lungren nor Bera is the political caricature their opponent depicts.
Two years after Lungren called his opponent a "Pelosi clone" in a TV ad, national Republicans continue to try to tie Bera to Democratic leaders.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, in a campaign formula in use across the country, has sought to link the Elk Grove doctor to a long list of liberal Democratic policies and campaign missteps.
When Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year called U.S. energy policy "the best it's ever been," for example, the GOP committee questioned whether Bera was happy with $4.29 gas prices at the time.
"The question of this election is whether we are better off after four years of Ami Bera's party's taxing, spending and borrowing agenda that is crippling our economy," NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay said in another statement.
On the other side, a liberal super PAC is counting Lungren among the "Tea Party Ten," a group of Republican incumbents it calls "some of the most odious members of the most extreme Congress in history."
Environmental groups are blasting his positions on global warming by calling him a member of the "Flat Earth Five."
Phone calls from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee warned voters that he's aligned with a "right-wing social agenda" in the wake of GOP Rep. Todd Akin's assertion that a woman's body can prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate" rape.
Clash on taxes, abortion
While Lungren sees the tea party as representing healthy participation in the democratic process, the Capitol Hill veteran in some ways embodies the establishment the movement wants to upend. He has disagreed with colleagues and constituents aligned with the tea party on major issues, including raising the debt ceiling and making an across-the-board cut to spending.
"I'm a conservative. I'm also an institutionalist. I want to see this place work," he said as clashes emerged in Congress between establishment and tea party Republicans.
Lungren endorsed Newt Gingrich in the presidential primary, not Santorum. And while he has voted with Akin on abortion-related issues, he denounced the Missouri Republican's comments as "simply incomprehensible."
Bera, meanwhile, has accepted contributions from Pelosi, who praises the candidate publicly, and uses some Democratic talking points in his own campaign. Yet at times he has distanced himself from his party.
Bera criticized the federal health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama and Pelosi, saying the law doesn't go far enough to reduce costs, though he says he would have been a "reluctant" vote for the bill. Earlier this year, Bera said Obama hasn't done enough to improve the economy and unemployment rates.
The rivals do, however, come down on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum on many issues.
Lungren vowed to oppose tax increases when he signed Americans for Tax Reform's no-tax pledge and voted to extend Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels.
Bera is supportive of some revenue hikes, including the tax measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown on California's November ballot, and wants to see the Bush-era tax cuts expire for those making more than $1 million.
Bera supports abortion rights and backed the Obama administration's push to require that private health insurance plans provide free birth control.
Lungren, who opposes abortion and has voted to cut off federal funding for the procedure, blasted the contraceptive mandate as an "assault on First Amendment" rights of religiously affiliated employers and other "conscientious objectors" of the health care law directing the change.
"I happen to believe in religious liberty," he said at the state GOP convention earlier this year.
Lungren voted against a version of the federal DREAM Act, which would grant residency to some undocumented students who came to the United States as minors.
Bera praises the proposal. "It makes no sense to drive out promising young people who want to contribute to society by serving in our military and protecting our freedom, or by going to college," he said in a statement.
Some room for agreement
The list goes on. The two hold opposing positions on campaign finance laws, same-sex marriage, offshore oil drilling and changes to Medicare and tax cuts contained in GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's budget proposal.
Lungren's decades-long career in politics has given him a reputation as a conservative. His votes, for example, have earned him 100 percent ratings from the National Right to Life Center and National Federation of Independent Business in recent years.
Bera, a medical school teacher and former county medical official who now makes his income from real estate investments and rental properties, doesn't have a voting record.
His 2010 run against Lungren was his first run for office since student government. Media statements, voter guides and interviews from his back-to-back congressional bids, however, have laid out his position on many issues.
There is some potential for agreement between the two candidates. Both, for example, told The Bee editorial board that they would support a ban on high-capacity gun magazines in the wake of this year's mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.
But the campaigns make the race seem like "Fox News versus MSNBC," said Allan Hoffenblum, who handicaps races as publisher of the California Target Book.
He said that could hurt both candidates in their efforts to woo independent and swing voters needed to carry the split district, especially as federal super PACs fill the airwaves with negative political attacks.
"Neither one seems to be doing anything to get that cross-over vote," he said. "They're both coming across as shrill partisans."
He said that may signal that both sides believe increasing turnout among party faithful, rather than winning over undecided voters, will determine the outcome of the race.
"I think it's a very strong 'R' vs.'D' race," he said. "A lot of that means how well Obama and Romney do in that district might (have) more of an impact on who wins than anything else."