CHESTERTOWN — CHESTERTOWN -- In an increasingly bitter struggle for Maryland's 1st District congressional seat, the two leading candidates agree on this: Election Day can't come soon enough.
Mired in a rut of accusatory political ads, the campaigns of Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest and Democrat Tom McMillen appear unable to free themselves from the mud, at least not until voters go to the polls on Nov. 3.
"This is a helluva thing to put your family through, politics," muttered Mr. Gilchrest, a freshman congressman who lives on ** the Eastern Shore with his wife and three children.
"I'll be glad when this whole thing is over," conceded Mr. McMillen, a three-term congressman from Anne Arundel County who is fighting for his political life in the newly drawn 1st District.
And that was before things turned even uglier last week. Barbara Gilchrest accused the McMillen camp of hiring a detective agency to dig up dirt on her husband -- a charge Mr. McMillen immediately denied.
Although the separate campaigns moved along placidly through most of the summer, the mood turned sour when the first campaign ads hit the air waves in September.
From that time on, the race has been consumed in a rancorous exchange of blame and barb, with campaign issues getting short shrift.
Only write-in candidate Ralph Gies, a dark horse running on an anti-abortion platform, has been left out of the fray.
"Wayne started it," said Mr. McMillen, a former professional basketball star. "Anybody who watched me in the NBA knows if I'm punched, I punch back."
The first punch, according to Mr. McMillen, was thrown in a Gilchrest radio ad that lampooned his Democratic opponent for accepting free travel and lodging for speaking engagements across the country and abroad. Mr. McMillen called the ad unfair, claiming that his celebrity status as a former professional athlete makes him a speaker much in demand.
He fought back, accusing Mr. Gilchrest in a biting television ad of voting to slash Medicare benefits for the elderly.
Mr. Gilchrest, a former schoolteacher and house painter, reacted as though someone had put alum in his apple pie.
"This type of campaign creates stress, fear, anxiety among people who should not have to bear that," he said, denying the charge.
Just when his staff thought the Medicare issue was behind them, anew McMillen ad appeared featuring three well-known Eastern Shore officials, including state Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., saying they've seldom heard from or seen Mr. Gilchrest since he took office two years ago.
That sent Gilchrest campaigners into their files, producing three letters the congressman sent to Mr. Malkus but which were never answered.
The effect of the McMillen ads has been to place Gilchrest workers on the defensive, a role they admit wastes precious time and money.
"I have to give it to them, they're good at this," said Tony Caligiuri, Mr. Gilchrest's campaign manager.
But while the Gilchrest campaign has been busy repairing damage from the McMillen shots, it has also stayed on the offensive.
A Gilchrest ad urged Eastern Shore voters to elect "one of us" to Congress, a rally to Shore residents to reject an outsider from the other side of the Chesapeake Bay in favor of the Republican congressman, who is married to a Crisfield native and who lives in Kent County.
Bankrolled with a 3-to-1 advantage in campaign funds, Mr. McMillen didn't hesitate to fire back. A McMillen TV ad suggested that Mr. Gilchrest, a New Jersey native, brought his home state's notoriety for dirty politics with him to the 1st District.
Despite the lack of attention the ads pay to substantial campaign issues, the two candidates have not shied away from discussing other matters in forums and debates.
On some issues they agree. Both favor abortion rights. Both support a waiting period for handgun purchases as well as a balanced-budget amendment. And both want to see campaign finance reforms.
But there are differences, too.
Mr. McMillen, who calls himself a "raging moderate," is one of a new breed of techno-Democrats known for their enthusiasm for high technology. From his perch on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, he successfully pushed legislation that will create five federal "telework" centers, including one on the Eastern Shore. The satellite work centers will be electronically linked to Washington-based offices, allowing federal workers to live in outlying areas and avoid daily trips to Washington.
At the same time, Mr. McMillen has a politician's affinity for taking credit where little is due, such as the preservation of land at Fort Meade and the continued operation of Baltimore's Curtis Bay Coast Guard yard. Both achievements were largely accomplished by others in the state congressional delegation.
For his part, Mr. Gilchrest has all but brushed aside any pork for his district, claiming that to vote for budget cuts and, at the same time, support spending on the home front is hypocritical.
Reflecting his party's approach, Mr. McMillen said it may be necessary to couple budget cuts with new taxes -- particularly aimed at the wealthy -- to bring the deficit under control.
From his Republican perspective, Mr. Gilchrest said he looks to ways other than new taxes to control spending.
"I'm not ready at this point to say we should raise income taxes," he said. "I think you ought to tax people at a fair rate on what they consume, but reward people on what they save and what they invest."
Mr. Gilchrest's own philosophy appears to be that of a new Washington hybrid: a fiscal conservative/environmentalist. He has voted withthe most conservative GOP members on unsuccessful amendments to cap spending and entitlements. But he was one of only 45 Republicans to back the creation of wilderness areas in the California desert, to spend public money for a Florida park and to use $43 million in Agriculture Department funds to preserve wetlands.
And it is on the wetlands issue that the two 1st District candidates differ markedly.
Mr. Gilchrest made a name for himself in Congress last year by pushing for a wetlands study by the National Academy of Sciences. The study would come up with a scientific definition of a wetland rather than use a Bush administration definition that Mr. Gilchrest and others say would eliminate from federal protection about 50 percent of the nation's wetlands.
In the midst of the debate are infuriated landowners, many of whom say the federal government is unjustly restricting their property rights.
"You got to be really careful about trying to over-regulate peoples' land because it is the soul of the country," Mr. McMillen said. He calls his opponent's position "extreme" -- even though Mr. McMillen himself supported the wetlands study amendment
sponsored by Mr. Gilchrest.
Mr. McMillen supports tax easements for wetlands owners. He also backs the creation of a wetlands preservation fund, and said "philosophically" he supports making people who use the Chesapeake Bay pay for improving its condition.
"Let's have a user fee for the bay," Mr. McMillen suggested. "Anyone who lives near the Chesapeake Bay. How about just a user fee for keeping it clean? I think there needs to be more work done on this."