SHADY GROVE — As she hurried to a Metro station after shaking hands with Democratic congressional candidate John Delaney, Lawrencia Atakora said she'd support him because of his positions on the issues. But she quickly added another factor influencing her decision: She hadn't heard a word from Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.
"I don't really know who he is," the 23-year-old Gaithersburg resident said of the Republican incumbent, who has represented Maryland's 6th District since she was 3 years old. "That could have something to do with it as well."
As one of roughly 300,000 Montgomery County voters drawn into the 6th as part of last year's redistricting by Democrats in Annapolis, Atakora represents the challenge Bartlett faces as he runs what is now widely considered an underdog campaign to keep the House seat he has held since 1993. While the 10-term incumbent has stepped up his effort — raising more money than in any of his previous races — he has remained less visible than his Democratic challenger.
With three weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election, Delaney, a Potomac banker, has been zipping through a packed schedule of public and private events. Last week, he organized a "women for Delaney" rally on Sunday, met with Hispanic voters on Monday, launched an African-American voter advisory committee on Wednesday and shook hands for 90 minutes as morning commuters poured into the Shady Grove Metro station on Friday.
By contrast, Bartlett's campaign declined to identify a single public event the congressman planned to attend last week except for a debate in Hagerstown in which both candidates participated.
Bartlett's campaign website does not list events supporters may attend. His aides haven't posted a message on Twitter since May. No one was sitting at telephones in the campaign's phone banking operation in Montgomery County during an unannounced visit by a reporter last week.
A half dozen Republicans, including some Bartlett allies, quietly expressed frustration at a perceived lack of urgency by the campaign. Others said Bartlett is campaigning but acknowledged that he and his staff aren't letting the press or public know. He attended an event Wednesday in Thurmont with other GOP candidates. The night before he appeared at a dinner for the Republican Women's Club of Frederick County.
In a brief interview, Bartlett disputed that he is not campaigning aggressively. "Where do they want me to be?" Bartlett said. "I'm in the district every hour of every day."
The new 6th District includes Maryland's western panhandle along with the city of Frederick and Democratic portions of Montgomery County. Many independent political observers consider the new district among the best opportunities in the nation for Democrats to gain a seat in Congress. Even Bartlett frequently acknowledges that the new boundaries have put him at a disadvantage.
Perhaps because of that, Bartlett's campaign has been rocky all year. In the months before the April primary, the 86-year-old Buckeystown scientist did little to tamp down speculation he would retire, causing several prominent state Republicans to jump into the race against him. Bartlett won with 44 percent of the vote.
More recently, the congressman has been forced to navigate a series of fumbles. In early September Bartlett had to apologize for comments he made at a town hall meeting in Cumberland in which he argued that federal student loans are unconstitutional. He had suggested that a government that ignores its constitution could perpetrate another Holocaust. The Delaney campaign quickly put up a radio spot noting that Bartlett had drawn a line from student loans to Nazi Germany.
Bartlett was put on defense once again when The Washington Post reported that the state's Republican Party chairman, Alex X. Mooney, had been hired as a part-time employee in the congressman's office after briefly raising money to wage his own campaign in the 6th District. Although Mooney never formally announced his candidacy and later abandoned the idea, he maintained an active finance committee with the Federal Election Commission.
House ethics rules prohibit aides from running to succeed their boss. State Democrats filed a formal ethics complaint against Bartlett with the Office of Congressional Ethics. Bartlett's office blamed the imbroglio on a clerical error.
Despite a long career in office, Bartlett has rarely had to run in a competitive election. His propensity to wander off message is part of his charm with many voters, but it has also led him into trouble.
At the Hagerstown debate last week, for instance, Bartlett said the nation's illegal immigrants "could just as well have been 12 to 20 million terrorists." His point was that the nation's loose borders are a domestic security concern — an argument that many Democrats would embrace — but it sounded as though he was comparing immigrants to terrorists.
Bartlett has nevertheless cultivated a deep sense of trust among voters in Western Maryland. Many reject the notion that he is not working hard for their vote.
"He's solid," said Mike Harshman, a 71-year-old Washington County resident. "The problem with putting someone else in there is that the person's going to be a rookie and he's going to get run over."
Even some of Bartlett's past critics warned not to count him out.
"When I threw my hat in the ring, I thought 'the guy's old and can't cut it,'" said state Del. Kathy Afzali, a Middletown Republican who challenged and lost to Bartlett in the primary.
"And boy, was I ever shocked when in came this 86-year-old man who was lucid, who was intelligent and who had a deep and compelling love of this nation," Afzali said. "I was shocked as could be when he put up the fight that he did."