If Kratovil survives, a major reason will be his effort to separate himself from the national Democratic Party, in spite of consistent support for his re-election from national Democratic leaders.

He is also being supported again by former Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a moderate unseated by Harris in the '08 primary.

Gilchrest's backing is a big reason that Betty Gingerich, a registered Republican, will vote for Kratovil, though she doesn't agree with everything he's done in his first term.

"I really think Kratovil is independent. He goes his own way and stands up for what he thinks is right," said the retired nurse from Queen Anne's County, adding that Harris' personality "turned me off" when she met him.

Long before the tide began running against Democratic candidates across the country, Kratovil was identified as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress, and both major parties have been targeting the district for many months.

That has helped make the Kratovil-Harris race among the most expensive House contests in Maryland history. More than $6.9 million had been spent by mid-October, much of it for the negative ad war.

The biggest spender, other than the candidates' campaigns, is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which dumped more than $1.1 million into anti-Harris advertising and put the Maryland contest near the top of its incumbent-defense efforts.

Harris has enjoyed active support and guidance from the National Republican Campaign Committee, which put more than $839,000 into the race.

According to both Republican and Democratic politicians, Kratovil is in a stronger position than he was six months ago.

"Andy Harris is the same guy that lost last time, so he's a retread and he hasn't changed his extreme views," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who chairs the DCCC. "People are looking for someone who is interested in solving problems, not on an ideological crusade."

A significant number of voters — about 1 in 7, according to the Sun poll — remain undecided. Those voters are split fairly evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Kratovil's chances of holding his job could depend on the success or failure of Democratic efforts to rally voters who typically sit out midterm elections, by framing the choice around the fate of Obama's agenda.

Barbara Bennett of Caroline County is receptive to that argument. Her support for Kratovil is more about the president than the congressman, the 77-year-old retired office manager said.

Obama "needs a better chance," said Bennett, a registered Republican. "He's only been in office a couple of years and they're expecting miracles from him."

The poll, conducted Oct. 15 to 20, has a 4.3 percentage-point margin of possible sampling error. The Sun surveyed 520 voters in the First District, which takes in portions of Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties and the entire Eastern Shore.


Sun Poll methodology

The Baltimore Sun telephone survey of 520 likely voters in the First District was conducted Oct. 15-20. The Sun's pollster, OpinionWorks of Annapolis, used a Maryland Board of Elections database to identify registered voters with a history of voting in gubernatorial elections or who had registered to vote since the last election, and obtained survey results from those who ranked themselves seven or higher on 1-to-10 scale of their likelihood to vote. The Sun's sample was designed to approximate the racial, gender, geographic, partisan and age breakdown of the state's voting population as a whole, based on turnout patterns averaged over the last four Maryland general elections. Results were weighted to reflect a higher-than-average Republican turnout this year, and slightly lower African-American participation than in recent elections. The margin of error for the First District question is 4.3 percentage points, which means that in 95 times out of 100, the actual answer obtained by surveying every Maryland voter would be within 4.3 percentage points of the answer obtained by using the sample.

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