It's this year's "stealth election." No one seems to know much about it. And yet, come Sept. 13, Maryland's 670,000 Republicans will have to choose a candidate -- for the United State Senate, no less.
You would think such an office would draw the cream of state Republicans. There is no higher federal office to run for in Maryland. And yet, the three GOP candidates who did file are virtual unknowns in this state. Their political experience in this state is minimal.
Ruthann Aron has never run for office before. Her only public service has been as an appointed member of the Montgomery County planning board -- for two years.
Ronald Franks is an Eastern Shore dentist who has served one term in the House of Delegates after winning the GOP nomination in 1990 by a mere 21 votes.
Bill Brock has held no public office in Maryland. He does have a raft of experience outside the state -- U.S. senator and representative from Tennessee, trade representative, labor secretary, chairman of the national GOP. But Maryland experience? Forget it.
Compounding the problem is the invisible nature of this campaign. Television and radio ads are few. No public debates so far (just one is scheduled). The only exposure most Republican activists have had to the candidates has been on the rubber-chicken circuit, which in GOPland takes the form of endlessly boring dinners.
Not one of these candidates has a large base. Ms. Aron is from Montgomery County, which should cast 20 or 25 percent of the primary vote. But she didn't cultivate these vineyards until this summer.
Mr. Brock lives near Annapolis. But do Arundel Republicans know him well? Not really. He is unknown in much of the Baltimore-Washington region.
As for Mr. Franks, he is known in the middle counties of the Eastern Shore and in Anne Arundel, but not elsewhere.
That leaves most Republicans confused. How, for instance, are the 100,000 GOP voters in Baltimore County supposed to decide?
This peculiar turn of events is a direct result of the feeble state of the Maryland GOP in the last quarter-century. As the number of )) elected Republicans dwindled, party leaders were hard-pressed to find a respectable candidate to run in statewide elections. If they were lucky, they drafted a single, viable candidate for each office. GOP primaries have been strictly pro forma.
The only truly contested Republican primary for governor took place 20 years ago; the last time there was a truly contested GOP Senate primary was in the early 1960s.
Further complicating matters is that the GOP's brightest hopes to unthrone Paul S. Sarbanes ducked. Rep. Helen Bentley, who was viewed as a very strong challenger, instead is running for governor. Rep. Connie Morella, the Montgomery County congresswoman with sky-high popularity, decided to keep her safe House seat.
That's why the GOP leadership was relieved when Mr. Brock entered the picture. He might be perceived as an outsider -- though he has lived in Maryland for most of the past two decades -- but he has solid political credentials.
But then Ms. Aron launched her aggressive offensive aimed at "career politicians." And Mr. Franks, who had decided last year to make the plunge, refused to withdraw.
The result has been a tame and civilized campaign with Ms. Aron providing the only fireworks. She has lashed out at Mr. Brock for not being a true Marylander, for being a lobbyist for foreign governments and for the aforementioned "sin" of having been in and out of political office since the 1960s.
That's probably good strategy, because her own credentials are skimpy. She's a real estate developer and lawyer who only recently has displayed interest in public service. But she has raised a substantial sum of money, thrown in a good deal of her own and made this a horse race.
How Mr. Brock plays in the Washington suburbs could prove pivotal. Yet the bulk of the GOP votes will be cast in the Baltimore region, where none of the candidates has made inroads. Voters have been cast adrift in unfamiliar waters without a compass.
Which candidate would have the best chance against Mr. Sarbanes? Pollsters say Ms. Aron, because she is a fresh face. But Mr. Brock is better positioned to pummel Mr. Sarbanes on the issues, such as the incumbent's distaste for free-trade agreements, his eagerness to politicize the Federal Reserve and his own "stealth" tendency to disappear -- except at election time.
The outlook, though, isn't bright. The three GOP primary campaigns have been unspectacular. Republican voters have not been energized.
And if that's the case in September, think what November will be like, with an incumbent Democrat lining up traditional support from the state's majority party.
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.