In what one candidate calls "a struggle for the soul of Maryland," voters today were deciding a too-close-to-call governor's race that could spin the state into a political U-turn.
A reputedly restive electorate also was choosing 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 would 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.
State elections chief Gene M. Raynor said the early voter turnout was strong throughout the state.
"If it continues the way it was this morning, we could pass 55 percent, but I still think it's going to be 55 percent," Mr. Raynor said. He said no major problems were reported today at the state's polling places.
Perry Hall resident Walter Noto, a stockbroker, said he had a 10-minute wait in line when he went to vote at Gunpowder Elementary School, in the 8th Legislative District, just before 8 a.m. He said election judges told him "there was a mob scene" when the poll opened at 7 a.m.
At the Towson Library, voters filed in in a steady stream.
There were no early crowds at Glenmount Elementary School in Hamilton, where by 9:30 a.m. 40 of the precinct's 406 registered voters had cast their ballots, according to voting judge William R. Carter. "I'm here to vote today because I think we are in need of a new governor," said Evelyn Miller, a 79-year-old Hamilton resident who has voted at the school for three decades. "I think change is good."
Ron Collins, a worker for the Glendening campaign, said 29 of the 241 "committed" Glendening voters had cast ballots early today. 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.
Mr. Raynor, the state administrator of elections, 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 were participating today.)
L Polls opened at 7 a.m. statewide and were to 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 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 that the intention is to intimidate black voters. A group of at least 100 lawyers, paralegals and law students were expected to show up at the polls to watch the watchers.
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 CongressionalDistrict, 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.
"They were kind of close," he conceded.
Voters also face a grab bag of charter revision questions. Howard County residents, for example, will decide whether they want to repeal a provision requiring their county council to meet during the dog days of August.
The state's 1,702 polling places opened today at 7 a.m. and were to close at 8 p.m. Voters are reminded to bring identification.