"Ulman is a very bright and sharp guy who is doing well in Howard County," said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and a Brown supporter. "There's a certain youthful energy that he brings … They complement each other. They're aggressive. They're ambitious."

Craig, meanwhile, faces a challenge uniting Republicans who have become increasingly divided by a growing conservative movement within the state party, Norris said.

"If [Craig] is able to get the Republican nomination — the Republican nomination has been taken over by the very far right — he'll be credible in a general election," he said. "I think he's a very credible candidate against any Democratic candidate. He can attract conservative Democrats in Baltimore County."

Szeliga said that as Harford executive Craig has cut the county property tax rate twice while shrinking the county workforce by 10 percent. Even during a downturn, she said, Craig has been able to open several new schools.

She said Craig had also been instrumental in developing a partnership between Towson University and Harford Community College, allowing students to seamlessly earn a degree by spending two years at each school.

"He certainly has a record to run on," she said. "It's not just rhetoric."

Former Republican Del. Donald Murphy of Baltimore County said he's undecided but leaning toward Young. He said Craig is known in party circles as a "quiet and unassuming . . . Mr. Fix-it kind of guy." What gives Murphy pause is the question of Craig's electability.

"The downside is he's not at all flashy and exciting," Murphy said. "I'd rather have Blaine as a Lincoln Day speaker than David Craig."

Though Craig has been a player on the state Republican scene far longer, he lagged behind the 41-year-old Young in fundraising last year. Craig's last disclosure, filed in January, showed that he raised $232,283 last year and had $202,236 in cash on hand. Young raised $445,651 and had $341,936 in the bank. Craig said his fundraising had been hampered by the time he spent on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

George, who did not express an interest in a gubernatorial run before this year, raised $9,290 last year and had $21,287 in the bank.

Murphy said he's cautiously optimistic that the Republicans will be able to compete in the 2014 race despite a 2-1 disadvantage in voter registration because of what he sees as growing discontent with O'Malley and President Barack Obama.

"For a Republican to win in this state, things have to align, and things are getting closer and closer to alignment each day," he said. "Republicans don't win in Maryland. Democrats lose."

ecox@baltsun.com

michael.dresser@baltsun.com