The pundits may have declared the presidential election over, but in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Chris Shays and Democratic challenger Jim Himes find themselves in a dead heat as polls open today.

For weeks, Himes has done all he can to associate himself with the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Shays, on the other hand, has tried to prove his political independence by distancing himself from both the White House and the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Obama leads McCain by 25 points in state polls. But in the 4th Congressional District, the election is tied, with both candidates possessing 44 percent of the vote in the last University of Connecticut poll.

Shays is an endangered species, the last Republican House member in New England. He has survived aggressive Democratic challenges before. But never before has Obama been on the same line as his opponent on the ballot.

Running on Obama’s Coattails

Jim Himes has been waiting for this day since April 19, 2007, the date he announced his run for Congress. A former employee of Goldman Sachs and an executive at a housing non-profit, Himes has strong ties to the fourth district. And, if you follow his advertising campaign, strong ties to Obama as well.

Himes’ campaign has given out tens of thousands of buttons depicting him and the popular Illinois senator at a Connecticut fundraiser. Additionally, Obama recorded a 30-second radio spot for Himes last week, declaring that as president, he will need Himes’ help in Congress. Reciprocally, Himes’ stump speech often includes praise for Obama.

This bond has been a common theme for Himes on the campaign trail.

“We need Jim Himes in Congress to stand with Barack Obama,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of New Haven said at an Obama rally in Bridgeport on Sunday.

At the same rally, Sen. Chris Dodd said he could not stress enough the importance of electing Himes, as well as all of the other Democrats, today. His message: “Vote row B,” a reference to the Democratic Party’s position on state ballots.

Diane Farrell, a former firsts selectwoman of Westport who unsuccessfully challenged Shays for his seat in both 2004 and 2006, said that Obama’s candidacy will help Himes at the polls.

“He is such a transformative figure in American politics,” she said of Obama in an interview. “He is inspiring a large number of voters in the district, which will help [Himes] win.”

Chris Healy, the state Republican Party chairman, disagrees. He cited Connecticut’s long history of ticket-splitting, referring to the practice of voting for one party’s candidate for president and the other’s for down-ticket races.

In a telephone interview, Healy said Himes’ repeated attempts to associate himself with Obama is a negative sign for his campaign.

“If he is trying to latch onto Obama, it indicates he does not feel confident running on his own,” he said.

The desire to associate with Obama’s message of hope has not been unique to Himes. Shays’ campaign released an ad in late August saying Shays has “the hopefulness of Obama,” and “the ‘straight-talk’ of McCain.” Last week, Shays told the News in an interview that he is dependent upon split-ticket voters to win.

“I do not win unless there are many Obama/Shays ballots,” he said.

Shays: “I just don’t think he can win”

In the interview with the News last week, Shays declared that he did not think that McCain would win the presidency, a comment that sparked an international media firestorm. News outlets from around the world, including the Associated Press, CNN, MSNBC and the BBC jumped on his comments as the latest example of dissent in the McCain camp. Shays is McCain’s campaign co-chair in Connecticut.

Partisan pundits interpreted his comments as a sign that Shays’ campaign is struggling.

“He’s speaking for his paycheck, and not for his independent loyalty to the Republican Party,” said Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist, on CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer last Thursday.

Independent observers agree, noting that Shays’ district — which includes affluent areas such as Greenwich and Ridgefield, Conn., as well as less-affluent cities like Bridgeport and Norwalk — has become more Democratic over time.

David Mayhew, the Sterling Professor of Political Science and an expert on congressional elections, said Shays is best off dissociating himself from leading Republicans including McCain and President George W. Bush ’68.

“His district has become more Democratic,” he said. “He had to say what he said to hold onto his seat.”

But Michael Sachse, the communications director for the Himes campaign, doubted Shays’ strategy.

“I don’t think it will have any effect,” he said. “Just this week [Shays] said he thinks John McCain is the best candidate for President. He is not distancing himself.”

A spokesman for the Shays campaign did not return repeated requests for comment on Monday.

Down to the wire

All indicators point to this being a close election.

Much like this year’s race, polls released two weeks before Election Day in 2006 showed Farrell and Shays in a tie. In the end, Farrell lost to Shays by 7,060 votes.

Farrell predicted that the race would be close this year as well. But she felt confident that a Democrat would finally represent the 4th District.

“Two weeks out they were tied; both candidates are fighting hard, but I think Himes will come away with it,” she said.

But Healy, the Republican Party chairman, thought otherwise.

“I think people in the fourth district will evaluate each candidate for what they are, and they will vote for Chris Shays,” he said.