AMERICAN CORNER -- In the heartland of Maryland's 1st Congressional District, where towns not much bigger than their zip codes have such inviting names as Friendship and Harmony, Republican Thomas Jones says the things that make GOP candidates wince.
"I'll be honest with you," said the soft-spoken co-owner of the general store that anchors this Caroline County village. "I don't know who's running. I haven't given it that much thought."
That's not the kind of primary election chatter that brings smiles to Robert P. Duckworth, Lisa G. Renshaw and Edward F. Taylor, the three Republican challengers to incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.
Despite their best attempts to kick up dust across the political landscape, the 1st District has hardly been disturbed, leaving voters such as Mr. Jones less than enthusiastic about the coming election.
Like many Maryland residents, Mr. Jones is surprised to learn that the state's primary election is set for March 3. It's an early date by traditional standards, but the General Assembly picked it after the last election to make Maryland more of a player in presidential politics.
"Didn't we just elect Gilchrest to Congress?" Mr. Jones asked, referring to the freshman Republican who won his first term just 15 months ago in a hotly contested race against Democrat incumbent Roy P. Dyson.
If Mr. Jones' grip on the 1st District congressional race is a bit loose, it's not because the 50-year-old storekeeper isn't concerned about politics or party.
He says there are plenty of reasons why the primary race for the party's congressional nomination hasn't set the large, mostly rural district on fire.
The economy's sour. Money's tight. It's the winter doldrums and people are going to bed early after work -- if they have a job. There's more to think about than who's running for what office.
The folks who come into his store care about politics, too, Mr. Jones insisted. But lots of them have stopped paying close attention because they don't see much difference between the candidates.
"People say they aren't impressed because they say it's going to be the same-old-same-old," he said.
For the incumbent, ennui may parlay into success at the polls. Mr. Jones said he's likely to vote for Mr. Gilchrest: "He's for the things I'm for."
And he admitted he doesn't know who's opposing Mr. Gilchrest, a 45-year-old former school teacher from Kent County.
The three other Republican candidates have been struggling against a pair of formidable obstacles -- the name recognition of an incumbent and a constituency that has yet to focus on the election.
Of Mr. Gilchrest's challengers, none has ever held elective office and all live in Anne Arundel County, across the bay and a world away from the Eastern Shore, which dominates the 1st District, geographically and politically.
The district was redrawn last year. In addition to the Eastern Shore and a chunk of Anne Arundel County that was previously in the 4th District, it includes a few precincts in South Baltimore.
With no money to speak of in the 1990 general election, Mr. Duckworth fared well with 40 percent of the vote in a 4th District race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Tom McMillen. Mr. McMillen is now running in the 1st District, too.
Mr. Duckworth, 51, describes himself as a "citizen representative" who opposes abortion, favors a cap on federal spending and wants "jobs, jobs, jobs" for the 1st District.
His campaign style is even-tempered. He avoids harsh words about Mr. Gilchrest and the other primary candidates, preferring instead to chastise Mr. McMillen and Congress in general, which he calls "a house of perks and a castle of privileges."
Taylor stresses trade
Mr. Taylor, a 47-year-old English teacher at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, once ran for a seat on the Anne Arundel County orphan's court.
He calls himself a moderate Republican who is liberal on some issues but insists that government should protect U.S. businesses against foreign competition.
"We can't sustain a socioeconomic Pearl Harbor," he said. "I don't want that to sound like left-handed Japan-bashing, but that's what it is," he added.
Mr. Taylor, who admitted that his campaign fund of $330 is unimpressive, said he plans to use radio and newspaper advertising to get his name before the voters during the
final few days before the primary.
Renshaw ruffles feathers
The primary's loudest noise has come from the youngest challenger, 30-year-old Lisa G. Renshaw of Severn.
A self-described Reagan and Bush Republican, Ms. Renshaw had planned to go after Mr. McMillen's 4th District congressional seat.
But when the district was redrawn, she turned her guerilla tactics on Mr. Gilchrest. The race hasn't been the same since.
With counsel from a small group of conservative GOP members, Ms. Renshaw has pored over Mr. Gilchrest's 1990 campaign statements as well as his voting record in Congress. She pounces on changes and discrepancies and lashes into Mr. Gilchrest with relish.
When Mr. Gilchrest admitted that he had not yet kept his promise to return a $25,000 congressional pay raise, Ms. Renshaw accused him of violating the voters' confidence. Forced to reply, Mr. Gilchrest said he has given $4,000 to charitites and plans to give more, but has shied away from divulging his largesse because he's not seeking gratuitous publicity.
When Mr. Gilchrest said he was rethinking his support of congressional term limits because longtime incumbents can be more helpful to their districts, Ms. Renshaw charged that he was flip-flopping on a campaign pledge.
And when Mr. Gilchrest said he wouldn't rule out the possibility that he might someday become a Democrat, Ms. Renshaw proclaimed him a traitor to the party.
With a camera crew and reporters watching, she marched into Mr. Gilchrest's Salisbury office and tried to present a staff worker with a registration form to switch Mr. Gilchrest from the GOP to the Democratic Party.
The office worker refused to accept the form -- which was useless anyway because the deadline for switching parties had passed. But Ms. Renshaw had created another attention-drawing event.
The usually amiable, low-key congressman nearly exploded when he learned of Ms. Renshaw's latest attempt to bamboozle him.
"This person does not deserve to be in the House of Representatives," an angry Mr. Gilchrest said by telephone.
"I can tolerate some people so long," he added, calling her publicity ploys "cute little gimmicks" and "pranked-up, trumped-up press conferences."
Once, after Ms. Renshaw lured him outside his congressional office to confront a group of 1st District residents who were in Washington for an anti-abortion rally, Mr. Gilchrest likened the experience to his combat days in Vietnam, where he was wounded.
"They would've made great Viet Cong," Mr. Gilchrest said to the crowd. "Of course, over there, I was always on the lookout for them. I was not ready for the shelling I got in Washington."
While Ms. Renshaw insists that Mr. Gilchrest isn't a true Republican, most party mainstays are sticking with him.
Wayne and Walden
"I see Wayne as a [Henry David] Thoreau," said state GOP Chairwoman Joyce L. Terhes. "When he speaks, I think of Walden [Pond]. He's made good contributions in his own way. He is concerned about leaving Maryland a better place."
Others are unhappy with Ms. Renshaw's tactics.
"I think it's going to backfire," said one observer. "On the Shore, I don't think this kind of aggressive, negative campaigning is going to work."
In Cecil County, at least one Republican leader isn't toeing the party line. County Commissioner Marie Cleek said she won't support Mr. Gilchrest because he hasn't attended to his constitutent homework. She said he has been slow in assembling a staff to handle constituent calls and hasn't told county officials how he stands on local issues.
Her solution? She's backing Democrat Tom McMillen because he's an incumbent with more experience in Congress.
"We don't have time for people to learn their job and all that," said Mrs. Cleek.
Mr. Gilchrest concedes that his Washington office was initially slow in responding to district calls. Part of the reason, he said, was that the office equipment and files he inherited from Mr. Dyson were in disarray.
Tony Caliguiri, Mr. Gilchrest's top aide, said that when the new staff began setting up the office he found that constituent files were missing, issue files had been thrown out, computers did not work and water had been poured into the office fax machine. Mr. Caliguiri stopped short of accusing the Dyson staff of sabotage, but he said it took several months before the new congressman's aides had the proper equipment.
Mrs. Cleek's impatience is not shared throughout the district.
Phil Gerald, a Republican and president of the Somerset County Commission, said the country's economic woes make it hard for any congressman -- and particularly a freshman -- to please all the folks back home.
"I would say he's been recognizing our needs," Mr. Gerald said.
Asked if he will support Mr. Gilchrest's re-election, Mr. Gerald paused for a moment.
"I'm really not decided yet," he answered. "I would think he would need another term to prove himself."
For his part, Mr. Gilchrest said he wants to be re-elected. But he also said he is not willing to take sides on an issue purely for political expediency. For that reason, he said, he does not appease ideological party mates such as Ms. Renshaw.
"Look," he said, "if I win the election, that's good. 'If I don't, that's OK, too. In fact, I'll be able to spend more time with my family."