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Forget Dole and Clinton. Forget the struggle for the Senate. Forget the twin melodramas over the future of the House and of Speaker Newt Gingrich. The most riveting election in the country this fall just might be the battle for the state school board in the 4th District of Kansas.

There have been school-board races in this 14-county district around Topeka for years, and no one's ever paid any attention. Certainly no one's ever raised substantial questions about sex education, school curricula, even the Pledge of Allegiance.

But here in the heart of the heart of the country, a devoutly conservative woman's effort to win a seat on the board has split apart the GOP in Bob Dole's state, has driven moderate Republicans to support a Democratic candidate, has placed the agenda of religious conservatives at the top of the local news and has thrown Kansas politics into upheaval.

All of the tensions that lay uneasily just below the surface in GOP primaries all year, that were barely contained at the San Diego convention and that have quietly bedeviled Republican politics, have been loosed in what's ordinarily a snoozy local race in the middle of the grain belt.

Not that Rene Armbruster's insurgent candidacy for a job that was ignored by almost everybody is a grave threat to the nation. (She doesn't think she's all that threatening; indeed, she's a wisp of a woman with delicate wire-rim spectacles and a whispery way.) It's that the bitterness that this school-board race has brought to the surface -- especially the range war among Republicans -- represents the rawest of politics at the most local level.

This is not a battle of consultants and pollsters and commentators and party leaders. The crisp fall air is full of the words "condom," "Bible," "values," "sex," "permissiveness," "elitism."

Armbruster's campaign is a crusade, but it's not about any of the hot-button subjects that make conservatives go wild and make liberals go even wilder. On the surface, it's about phonics. She believes phonics are the best way to teach kids how to read. She's single-minded about it. You might even say she's evangelistic about it.

But down deep, this is really not about short and long vowels or about phonemes and diphthongs. Not at all.

Armbruster is one of five school-board candidates endorsed by the Kansas Education Watch Network (KEW-NET), a group of religious conservatives whose fiery leader, James McDavitt, speaks angrily of "educrats" and attacks sex and AIDS education and accreditation standards.

If Armbruster and the others prevail in their races this fall, candidates supported by KEW-NET would hold a majority on a board that has remarkable independence and power. It would also be yet another victory for religious conservatives, who already control the Kansas House and much of the state GOP, now directed by a former head of the Kansas Christian Coalition.

This growing Christian Right influence terrifies moderate Republicans, who feel crowded out of a party they blithely controlled for generations. "They're making it tough for anyone who is not very conservative to have any voice in this party," says James W. McKinney, a Wichita State political scientist once active in GOP affairs. "They'd just as soon people like me disappear."

And they are disappearing, some of them drifting right into the arms of Armbruster's Democratic rival, William O. Wagnon Jr., a Washburn University historian who worries his opponents are "trying to dismantle the public school system." One of his allies is retiring GOP state Rep. James E. Lowther of Emporia, who warns: "Having a majority of people on the board who think like this would be a detriment to the children of Kansas."

There's no middle ground here. "They hate me," says Armbruster, who says she's no tool of any group, just an alarmed citizen who wants to emphasize "the basics," offer "abstinence-only" sex education and limit outside interference in schools. "Little by little we've given our freedom away to the government," she says.

Them's fighting words, and fighting is what people are doing around here this fall.

But to the rest of us, the fight is a reminder that the real battles of American politics often aren't played out on the networks or among elite commentators or amid the confetti in glitzy convention halls, but in places like the 4th District in Kansas. Here, suddenly, politics matters. Here, suddenly, politics isn't something that other people do.

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