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Waiting for E.J.

The First District congressional seat in Maryland is on everyone's radar screen for 2010.

A pair of powerful Marylanders, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen and House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, will be going all out to protect one of their most vulnerable colleagues. And Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, just might want to help his party capture one of the juiciest pickup targets in the country.

The district covers mainly Republican portions of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, then jumps the Bay and takes in the entire Eastern Shore, one of the most conservative parts of the state. The current congressman, Democratic freshman Frank Kratovil, holds one of several dozen House seats nationwide from districts that voted for the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008.

Republican state Sen. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, who lost to Kratovil by fewer than 3,000 votes in a district that McCain carried by 20 percentage points, is already on the rematch trail. He's raising campaign funds and hoping for a clear shot at the incumbent in a year when Barack Obama's name won't be on the ballot to pump up the district's anemic Democratic vote.

Of course, Harris's primary triumph over Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest--unseating a veteran congressman in a classic conservative-moderate intraparty fight--was among the factors that helped Kratovil win. Gilchrest crossed party lines to endorse the Democrat, and in a race that close, it's easy to imagine that a divided Republican Party contributed to Kratovil's victory.

Next time around, for many reasons, Harris wants a straight path to the general election, allowing him to focus all of his time, money and effort on Kratovil.

Whether he gets it will depend, most likely, on what state Sen. E.J. Pipkin decides to do. Pipkin was the odd man out in the 2008 Republican primary, finishing a fairly distant third behind Harris and Gilchrest. But with Gilchrest no longer a candidate, the odds will improve for Pipkin. How far they'll tilt in his direction is part of what makes Pipkin's decision a tricky one.

The former Wall Street bond trader has deeper pockets than Harris, an obstetric anesthesiologist, and he's not afraid to spend it, even on lost causes like a 2004 challenge to Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (there went $2 million of the Pipkin fortune).

But to run in 2010, he'd have to give up his state Senate seat (so will Harris).

A new analysis of the First District race by Nathan L. Gonzales of the respected, non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report repeats what state Republicans have been saying for some time: Pipkin "may seek to avenge his loss to Harris."

Rothenberg also reports that former Del. Al Redmer of Baltimore County could decide to run. Eastern Shore Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, "viewed as a rising star," is less likely to jump into a contested primary.

But it is Pipkin who is grabbing most of the attention, as Republicans--and Democrats--wait to see if he'll get in.

The Eastern Shore state senator, whose deep pockets mean that he can afford to take his time, has not been returning phone calls from the Maryland Politics blog seeking first-hand information about his thinking.

According to the Rothenberg Report, Pipkin "is not happy about the way the primary played out last cycle." In particular, he didn't like the fact that Harris tried to tag him with the same liberal label he hung on Gilchrest, or that the Harris forces tried to tie Pipkin, a populist conservative, to Gov. Martin O'Malley, a liberal Democrat.

"If Harris and Pipkin face off, it's unclear who would have the upper hand," concludes the Rothenberg Report. It points out that the Club for Growth, which helped fund Harris' challenge against Gilchrest, has less interest in the First District race now that Gilchrest has been removed.

Democrat Kratovil "has the opportunity to solidify his position by using incumbency to demonstrate 'independence,' providing good constituent service, and raising a lot of money," the Rothenberg Report concludes. But he "doesn't have much room for error and will need to maintain an independent image to get re-elected."

Of course, Kratovil probably won't mind if the Republicans beat each other bloody in a September primary for the privilege of opposing him in November.

Rothenberg doesn't express an opinion about which Republican would stand a better chance of unseating Kratovil, but it does say that if Harris is the nominee "he'll have to do a much better job connecting with voters on the Eastern Shore."

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