Candidates in the 6th Congressional District ran from polling place to polling place this morning, confronting particularly low turnouts despite the sunny, warm weather.
Still, the candidates were confident in their get-out-the-vote operation and suggested that turnout for today's primary -- in which Marylanders will help choose a GOP presidential candidate and settle a handful of highly competitive congressional races -- might be higher in the afternoon.
"There's a lot of energy, there's a lot of enthusiasm," said state Sen. Rob Garagiola, a leading Democrat in the race. "We're going to turn out those voters."
His top challenger, John Delaney, was standing outside Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, meeting a trickle of voters as they entered the building.
"Energy levels seem very good," the Potomac banker said. "My sense from the voters that we're talking to is that we're doing very well."
On the Republican side, incumbent Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, focused much of his attention in the morning on Western Maryland, which is still a GOP stronghold. Bartlett said his campaign had placed a flurry of phone calls to voters in the days leading up to the race to remind them of the election.
"We have our signs out and we have people at most of the voting locations today," Bartlett said. "We're taking this very seriously."
While much of the nation's focus in the presidential race will be on Wisconsin, Maryland Republicans will offer up to 37 delegates to one of the candidates in the primary. Voters could help solidify Mitt Romney's front-runner status or potentially alter the course of the race by surprising pundits and backing another candidate.
"If Romney can run strong everywhere [in Maryland], that's a pretty good sign that he's not only winning those moderate voters, but that he is starting to pull in more of the conservative voters," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
But if Romney does not win here, Eberly added, "the doubts that already exist out there about whether or not he can close the deal would balloon."
National leaders in both political parties will also closely monitor the primary elections in the Maryland's 6th District, which is expected to produce one of the nation's most competitive House races this fall.
Elliott Allentuck, a 71-year-old Rockville resident, came out to vote because he is concerned that the Supreme Court will overturn the nation’s new health care law. The Democrat voted for Garagiola.
“I’m worried about health care,” Allentuck said. “The economy, I feel, will work itself out.”
Martha Hefferon, an 84-year-old Rockville resident, said she turned out to support anyone who could beat President Barack Obama in November. In the 6th District, she voted for state Sen. David Brinkley, a Frederick County Republican who is challenging Bartlett.
“If we don’t get this president out of this office, this country is dead,” Hefferon said. “It’s driving me crazy.”
Other competitive races include the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, in which former Secret Service agent Daniel John Bongino is running against former Pentagon official Richard J. Douglas. Democrats John LaFerla of Chestertown and Wendy Rosen of Cockeysville are battling for a chance to challenge Republican Rep. Andy Harris in the 1st District, now a Republican stronghold.
For a state that is often passed over in presidential contests, Maryland received an unusual amount of attention from the candidates in recent weeks. Romney, who enjoys the support of well-known Maryland Republicans such as former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., campaigned in Arbutus.
Newt Gingrich stumped in Annapolis and Salisbury, and he returned to Frederick on Monday.
Speaking to about 100 supporters at a Ford dealership in Frederick, the former House speaker acknowledged his long-shot status but noted that Romney was a long way from locking up the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. He later addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Hood College.
Len Latkovski, a professor of history and international studies at the college, said Gingrich took about 10 questions on topics including health care and the nation's rising budget deficit. "His talk was much more geared toward a general public audience or a college audience" rather than core Republican voters, Latkovski said. "It was a very civil, very good event."
About a dozen protesters held signs in the room, he said.
The dynamics of the presidential race began to shift in the days leading up to the primary. Gingrich, for instance, drastically scaled back the scope of his campaign and began signaling that he would support Romney if the former Massachusetts governor wins the nomination. A chorus of conservative Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, recently endorsed Romney.
Romney's leading opponent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, did not campaign in Maryland, instead choosing to make a stand in Wisconsin. He also did not field a full slate of delegates here, putting him at a significant disadvantage.
That made the final days of primary campaigning in Maryland feel vastly different than the Democratic nomination fight in 2008, which repeatedly drew Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama into the state for a series of events. That year, the state's primary was held in February, on the same day as the Virginia and Washington primaries.
Still, the way Republican delegates are allocated in Maryland could offer an opening for Santorum, Gingrich or TexasRep. Ron Paul. Twenty-four delegates are awarded by congressional district — three for each of the state's eight districts — meaning that a candidate can pick up delegates even if he fails to capture the popular vote statewide.
Another 10 delegates will go to the winner of the statewide popular vote. The final three spots are filled by state party officials, including the Republican Party chairman.
Supporters of Romney, who had a double-digit lead in two statewide polls released recently, were busy making phone calls to ensure that voters turn out for the primary. Louis Pope, co-chair of the campaign in Maryland, said he is warning against complacency.
"You don't want people to get overconfident and think it's over," Pope said. "We definitely need people to follow through and actually go to the polls."
Despite the candidates' efforts, many observers predict a low turnout, particularly as the presidential contest shows signs of winding down. State election officials report that 76,124 Marylanders cast an early ballot last week, down from the 77,288 who voted early in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.
One of the few areas that appeared to experience an increase in early voting was the 6th District, which includes Western Maryland as well as portions of Frederick and Montgomery counties.
Garagiola, a Germantown lawyer, has long been considered the favorite for his party's nomination and has the backing of the state's labor unions and Gov. Martin O'Malley. But he has faced a strong challenge from Delaney, who has spent more money and has picked up several high-profile endorsements of his own, such as former President Bill Clinton.
Democrats view the seat as a potential pickup opportunity in the general election this November. Bartlett has seven opponents in the GOP primary.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
•Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
•You must be a registered Democrat or Republican to vote in a presidential or congressional primary.
•Unaffiliated voters may vote for nonpartisan positions, such as school boards in Howard and Carroll counties
•To find your polling place, go to https://www.mdelections.umd.edu or call your local election board.
To find your district or read more about Maryland's congressional candidates, go to baltimoresun.com/electionguide