In what one candidate calls "a struggle for the soul of Maryland," voters today will decide a too-close-to-call governor's race that could spin the state into a political U- turn.
And it doesn't stop there. A reputedly restive electorate must also choose between continuity and change in numerous other contests, including those for state attorney general, comptroller, eight congressional seats and U.S. senator.
Political professionals say that a modest turnout will favor the Republican candidate in the governor's race, Ellen R. Sauerbrey. GOP partisans in this 2-to-1 Democratic state are generally thought to be more committed.
"This election offers the clearest choice in memory, a change in direction for the state," Mrs. Sauerbrey, the one-time underdog, said yesterday as she barnstormed across the state in her bid to become the first GOP governor in almost three decades. She appeared confident in the wake of polls that showed her in a virtual dead heat with her opponent.
Analysts say a heavy turnout could benefit Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, the Democrat, because of his party's registration edge.
Mr. Glendening, who says he is wrestling with Mrs. Sauerbrey for the state's "soul," campaigned in Dundalk, Glen Burnie, Baltimore and the Washington suburbs yesterday.
In Sparrows Point, where he shook hands at the Bethlehem Steel plant -- a traditional stop for union-backed Democrats -- Mr. Glendening predicted he would win with 55 percent of the vote. He dismissed polls showing him and Mrs. Sauerbrey neck and neck as "just not valid."
"Voters have a lot of common sense, and when you really start focusing, when you get close, those numbers often start collapsing," he said.
Gene M. Raynor, the state administrator of elections, predicted that the turnout would be 55 percent statewide, slightly above average for an election where the president isn't on the ballot.
Mr. Raynor said his 55 percent estimate was based on "past performances, the amount of activity I've seen in the way of absentee ballot requests, and the amount of activity I've seen in campaigning."
(Only about 60 percent of those eligible are registered in the first place. If Mr. Raynor is right, little more than a quarter of Marylanders of voting age will participate today.)
The weather may also be a factor. The National Weather Service predicted sunshine, with temperatures in the upper 60s for most of the state. "It's Democrat weather," said one forecaster, reflecting the conventional wisdom.
Polls were scheduled to open at 7 a.m. statewide and will close at 8 p.m.
The race for U.S. Senate pits the Democratic incumbent, Paul S. Sarbanes, against Republican Bill Brock, a former congressman and senator from Tennessee.
Republican Richard D. Bennett, a former U.S. Attorney for Maryland, is challenging state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s bid for a third term.
Among races for the U.S. House of Representatives, two members of the state House of Delegates, Democrat Gerry L. Brewster and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., are battling for the 2nd District congressional seat vacated by Helen Delich Bentley.
Democrat Paul Muldowney is challenging incumbent Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett to represent the state's 6th District in Congress, and Democrat Louis L. Goldstein, comptroller since 1959, is running against Republican Timothy R. Mayberry, a banker.
But it is the governor's race that has drawn most of the attention. And Baltimore City is crucial to the hopes of Mr. Glendening, who holds a big lead among minority voters.
Sometime Republican candidate Ross Z. Pierpont has promised place about 80 poll watchers in selected West Baltimore polling places today. Dr. Pierpont, leader of a political action committee called the Knights and Dames of Freedom, says his (( effort is designed to prevent voting fraud.
But his plan has angered many black political leaders, who contend Dr. Pierpont's intention is to intimidate black voters. A group of at least 100 lawyers, paralegals and law students are expected to show up at the polls to watch the watchers.
Mrs. Sauerbrey, who has disavowed Dr. Pierpont's effort, is scheduled to vote this morning at 9:30 at Jacksonville Elementary School in northern Baltimore County.
Mr. Glendening is scheduled to teach his regular 8 a.m. government and politics class at the University of Maryland College Park, then vote near his home in University Park.
Voters have a lot of other decisions to make.
Besides deciding the congressional and statewide contests, Baltimore-area voters must pick four county executives plus dozens of county council members, Circuit Court clerks and sheriffs across the state.
Not all the races are that hard-fought.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Republican representing the 1st Congressional District, said his opponent, Democrat Ralph T. Gies, recently complained that Mr. Gilchrest's campaign signs along Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel County were blocking Mr. Gie's campaign signs.
So Mr. Gilchrest, who is heavily favored to win re-election, said he and an aide drove up and down the highway from Annapolis to Glen Burnie, either moving or removing signs where they blocked those of his opponent.
Voters also face a grab bag of charter revision questions.
The state's 1,702 polling places open today at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Voters are reminded to bring proper identification.