Although the election is eight months away, the race for Anne Arundel County state's attorney is already generating considerable heat.
The first debate last week at the Crofton Library drew 80 people, and both candidates say they have begun speaking at political forums and community meetings each week.
The reason is simple: Crime is a hot topic.
A New York Times/CBS News Poll of 1,146 people conducted in January found that crime rivaled the economy as the problem rated most important in the country.
In Maryland, crimes against property fell 2 percent and violent crime rose by 1 percent in the first nine months of 1993, according to state police.
Nevertheless, State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee and his Republican challenger, John R. Greiber, say they are hearing from more people concerned about crime.
"You can't turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without hearing about some major crime, so the perception about crime on the increase is out there," Mr. Weathersbee said.
Mr. Greiber, an Annapolis lawyer who declared his candidacy in September, said he launched his campaign early because he wanted voters concerned about crime to know who he thinks is to blame -- Mr. Weathersbee.
"I'm asking people, 'Are you safer now than you were four years ago, or eight years ago?' If the answer is no, it's time for a change," Mr. Greiber said.
Mr. Weathersbee counters that he wants voters to know what he has achieved since taking over the job in October 1988, when Warren B. Duckett Jr. was appointed a Circuit Court judge. Before his appointment, Mr. Weathersbee was a deputy and an assistant state's attorney for 20 years.
He said he has instituted a victim-witness program, a bad-check unit for prosecutors, a District Court screening unit to weed out cases that should not go to trial, and established trial teams to allow prosecutors to pool their resources to investigate child abuse, sex offenses and narcotics cases.
"They aren't the kind of things that make headlines, but they've made for a better system," he said.
Mr. Greiber has hammered Mr. Weathersbee on developments that have made headlines, including:
* Failing to dismiss, fine or discipline Deputy State's Attorney Gerald K. Anders after he was arrested and charged with drunken driving in July. Mr. Anders was later acquitted.
* The release of Damien A. Day of Annapolis, who had been charged with shooting two Annapolis youths but was ordered released because the case was not brought to trial within the required 180 days.
* The decision by Mr. Weathersbee's office to charge two men with manslaughter instead of murder in the death of Arch Baldwin, a homeless Annapolis man, in July 1992. Judge Robert H. Heller Jr.'s decision in that case is due Wednesday.
Mr. Greiber says such "errors in judgment" have prompted him to come out swinging.
He also has criticized Mr. Weathersbee for allowing his assistants to practice civil law part-time, a practice he said is banned in the state's attorney's offices in all of the other metropolitan counties.
Mr. Weathersbee said three or four of his 28 assistants practice civil law and that they do it on their own time.
He said he has found no evidence that the outside work harms the prosecutor's office.
"A lot of what is perceived as being wrong is a very subjective thing, based on who is doing the talking," Mr. Weathersbee said.
Political observers say it is too early to tell how voters will respond to such campaign vitriol.
"It looks like it's going to be a race with a great deal of political emphasis put on that office, and it's a shame that the office is being politicized," said Joseph W. Alton Jr., a Republican and a former county executive, sheriff and state senator.
Timothy Murnane, a Republican supporter of Mr. Greiber who was narrowly defeated by Mr. Weathersbee in 1990, said Mr. Greiber's strategy could pay off if voters link the county's crime problems with its top elected law enforcement officer.
"Frank is an incumbent with 25 years in that office, and concerns about crime right now are the worst that they've ever been," Mr. Murnane said.
"Whether it's fair or not, the buck has to stop there."