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Decisive battles

Only a handful of races will determine which party controls the House for the next two years

Out of the 435 House races this November, only about 65 should be competitive. An election season in which 85 percent of incumbents should coast to victory may not sound exciting. But compared to previous years, 2006 may be as topsy-turvy as they come. That's good news for Democrats hoping to gain control of the House. They need to win just 15 seats to install Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as speaker of the House and take back control of that side of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Can the Democrats do it? A lot depends on how they fare in these 10 crucial races:

Note: Cook Rating is the forecast for the race as judged by elections guru Charlie Cook as of Sept. 20. PVI indicates the Partisan Voting Index, a measure Cook uses to determine the temperature of each House district. A PVI of R+1 indicates the district voted 1 percentage point higher for Bush in 2000 and 2004 than the national average. D+5 would indicate a district that voted for Gore or Kerry at an average of 5 points higher than the national average.

Connecticut 4th District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: D+5

Connecticut congressman Chris Shays promises that if he goes down in November, he'll do it without slinging mud. Under siege by robocalls from surrogates of Democratic opponent Diane Farrell, the Republican Shays has urged the National Republican Conference Committee to keep its attack ads out of the Connecticut House race. The 2006 face-off between Farrell and Shays marks a rematch of a tightly contested bout in 2004. Democrats are banking on Connecticut voters' opposition to the Iraq war. Until recently, Shays was one of President Bush's most hawkish supporters. Now, after his 14th trip to Iraq in August, Shays supports a timeline for the removal of troops. Farrell has opposed the war from the beginning, leading peace marches even before it started in 2003.

Texas 22nd District

Cook Rating: Leans Democratic

PVI: R+15

On the surface, the open-seat district that belonged to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seems like an almost certain pickup for Democrats. Democrat Nick Lampson won't even face a Republican challenger on the ballot due to DeLay's pullout from the race. Still, Republicans have pushed former Houston city councilwoman and anti-smoking crusader Shelley Sekula-Gibbs into the fray as a write-in candidate. Lampson, a former congressman and casualty of the GOP-led redistricting efforts in 2004, actually trails Sekula-Gibbs in polls. But on election day, conservative voters will have to press a button and spell out "Shelley Sekula-Gibbs" into an on-screen keyboard. If voters can't spell her name right, election judges will have to determine the intent of the voter-a formula for a potential legal challenge.

Arizona 8th District

Cook Rating: Leans Democratic

PVI: R+1

For nearly two decades, Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe kept Democrats at bay in southern Arizona with a moderate voting record. Now, with Kolbe retiring, conservative voters finally have a candidate they can get behind. Border security champion Randy Graf may fire up the GOP base, but Republicans at the national level remain skeptical about his chances against Democratic candidate Gabrielle Giffords, a former state senator. In September, national GOP officials canceled $1 million in advertising for Graf, leaving him alone to try to win what was once considered perhaps 2006's premier competitive House race.

Indiana 8th District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: R+9

Democratic challenger Brad Ellsworth enjoys a sizable lead over incumbent Republican John Hostettler in both polls and war chest, but the sometimes-controversial Christian incumbent has beaten long odds before. Hostettler, first elected in 1994, raised eyebrows frequently with votes that have gone against the Republican grain. He was one of six Republicans to vote against the authorization of force in Iraq and one of just 11 House members to vote against the aid package for Hurricane Katrina victims. And in a district known by reputation as the "Bloody 8th" for voting out six incumbents in the past 50 years, Hostettler might be running against not only his Democratic opponent, but also a constituency prone to get antsy with long-time congressmen.

Illinois 8th District

Cook Rating: Leans Democratic

PVI: R+5

Republicans think incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean can be beaten in the Republican-leaning district. And if GOP candidate David McSweeney can take out Bean, the Democrats' task on election night could get much tougher. Bean took office after a close election in 2004 and became the district's first Democratic representative in its nearly 70-year history. Once elected to the House, Bean joined the Blue Dog Democrats caucus, a group self-described as conservative. McSweeney, an investment-banking millionaire, has loaned cash to his campaign to try to equal the well-heeled Bean. Both campaigns should eventually drop more than $3 million into the race.

New York 24th District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: R+1

Conservatives may not thrive in upstate New York districts like the 24th, but moderate-to-liberal Republicans like retiring Sherwood Boehlert do quite well. Ray Meier, a well-liked Republican state senator, hopes to keep Boehlert's seat in Republican hands. Both sides seem to smell a possible victory. Democrats flew in Sen. Hillary Clinton to campaign for Democratic candidate and local district attorney Michael Arcuri. First Lady Laura Bush traveled to New York on Meier's behalf.

Iowa 1st District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: D+5

Voters in the northeastern Iowa district may like Democratic presidential candidates, but the district has recently supported conservative representatives like Jim Nussle, who is leaving his House seat to run for governor. Both parties seem confident they can win the district and have decided to fight hard for it. The mudslinging has even gone professional, with the campaigns of Republican Mike Whalen, founder of the Heart of America hotel chain, and Democratic trial lawyer Bruce Braley attacking their opponents' professional ethics. Braley accuses Whalen of building his hotel empire on the backs of illegal immigrant labor and Whalen accuses Braley of building his practice on nefarious lawsuits that drive up the cost of health insurance.

Kentucky 4th District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: R+12

The conservative Kentucky district that encompasses much of the Cincinnati suburbs might still be in Democrats' control if Ken Lucas hadn't term-limited himself out of Congress in 2004. Lucas' retirement cleared the way for Republican Geoff Davis to cruise to victory in 2004 over the father of actor George Clooney. Davis appeared ready to win an easy reelection until Democrats convinced the 73-year-old Lucas to run again. Liberal Democrats might regret that move, though. During his three terms, Lucas was one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, espousing a pro-life, anti--gay marriage, and pro--tax cut philosophy that made liberals cringe.

Indiana 9th District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: R+7

Ohio valley voters in Indiana may as well call it the Thriller on the River. Like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier leading into the "Thrilla in Manila," Democrat Baron Hill and Republican Mike Sodrel have already split two previous face-offs. In 2002, Sodrel lost to the incumbent Hill by 5 percentage points. Two years later, Sodrel, a trucking company owner, knocked off Hill by 1,500 votes. Now, Hill has returned to take on Sodrel again. Neither party is taking the race lightly. The state's attorney general filed lawsuits against political action committees on both sides to try to get them to stop mudslinging robocalls.

North Carolina 11th District

Cook Rating: Tossup

PVI: R+7

Democrats would like to send Heath Shuler back to Washington-just not as an NFL quarterback. The former University of Tennessee star and infamous NFL bust moved to western North Carolina and last year announced his intention to challenge incumbent Republican Charles Taylor. Even as a political neophyte, Shuler has pulled even or ahead in polls with the eight-term incumbent Taylor, whose critics have tried to capitalize on unsubstantiated ethics charges related to outside investments.

John Dawson

John Dawson

John is a correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, the University of Texas at Austin, and previously wrote for The Birmingham News. John resides in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @talkdawson.