Browsing the brie torte and sundried tomato capellini at the deli counter of Eddie's of Roland Park, the shoppers of North Baltimore were talking about the mayor's race and revealing their political tastes.
As the customers pondered how they would vote on primary election day, many found themselves thinking more about the character of the candidates than their promises -- reasoning that promises can be broken.
They seemed to see the virtues of the candidates and the challenges faced by the city as relevant to one another. If a candidate is financially irresponsible in his personal life, for example, he might be less able to balance the budget of a city with little money and several competing interests.
Conversations with a score of likely voters at the Roland Avenue store revealed strong leanings toward City Councilman Martin O'Malley, with many saying his background as a prosecutor makes him most qualified to tackle the city's crime problem.
Others have ruled out City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former school board member Carl Stokes because they say they have character flaws that might prove disastrous in running such a divided and financially troubled city.
Several voters objected to Bell's failure to pay his bills on time and running what they regard as a confrontational, racially charged campaign. They also question Stokes' holding himself up as the education candidate while his pamphlets falsely describe him as a college graduate.
Also of concern to some is that Stokes might be unrealistic -- such as in his promise to cut elementary school class sizes to 15 pupils without offering a good explanation of how he will pay for it.
Susan Talbott, 60, a nurse and Planned Parenthood volunteer from the Tuscany/Canterbury neighborhood, weighed three potatoes in her hands as she evaluated the three candidates.
"I was never impressed by Bell," said Talbott, dropping one of the potatoes back into the bin. "I think he's young, inexperienced, brash and arrogant. I met Carl Stokes at a block party this summer, but the college diploma issue finished him for me.
"That led me to O'Malley. I had no idea he was so young, only 36? But when I met him at a community meeting, I found that I liked his youth and energy. He was also very articulate and had a great ability to talk about the issues, especially crime."
This is not the Baltimore of boarded-up rowhouses. In this gourmet food store near the grand homes of Roland Park, clerks sporting ties and oxford button-downs hold the door and carry the hazelnut shortbread customers purchase out to their cars.
Harriett Little, a retired executive assistant who came into the store to buy pina colada mix, said she likes O'Malley because she sees in him some of Rudolph W. Giuliani's spine and toughness.
Little said she admires the New York mayor because he has dramatically reduced crime and improved the quality of life in a city that in some ways was rougher than Baltimore.
"I like Giuliani's values, and I like what he's done for New York -- it's cleaner, there's less crime, and that has really helped the economy," she said. "It would help Baltimore a lot to elect a candidate like that."
Tim Johnson, 43, a business broker from Ednor Gardens, strolled through the market in Teva sandals and a Bass Ale T-shirt, collecting crimini mushrooms and Italian plum tomatoes for a dinner salad.
At first, Johnson said, he intended to vote for Bell because he was impressed by Bell's experience as City Council president. But then Johnson concluded that Bell did not have the maturity for the job after Bell's supporters shouted down two respected lawmakers -- Del. Howard P. Rawlings and state Sen. Joan Carter Conway -- during an endorsement rally for O'Malley outside City Hall.
"Bell was the front-runner, and I was leaning toward him, but he seems to be running such a negative campaign," Johnson said.
Some also saw Bell's campaign as having a racial divisiveness that will hurt a fragile city.
Attorney Alan Baron, 57, who was wheeling a cart holding a cucumber and bottle of ruby red grapefruit juice, erupted angrily when asked about Bell's campaign theme, "Vote for someone who looks like you," which is aimed at black voters.
"That kind of racial politics is so destructive, because it drives away the white business community, which is part of what the city needs to succeed," said Baron.
Mike Vecero, 42, of Hampden, who works in the fresh produce section, said he feels race will be a factor in the election.
"I'm sure that some people won't vote for O'Malley because he's white," said Vecero, as he piled broccoli and onions into compartments. "But he's also an underdog and a fighter. And with the vote split between two black candidates, he may have a chance."
Wanda Williams, a social worker who stopped in to buy a taco salad, said she's not worried about Stokes' misstatements of a college degree on his campaign literature.
Williams said she figures the error might have been a simple mix-up, with campaign workers misinterpreting Stokes' statement about "attending Loyola College."
"Carl Stokes has an appeal that is cross-cultural and cross-generational, and I'm backing him because I think he's the candidate who can be supported by all voters," Williams said.
Most shoppers felt that the city's high crime rate is the problem the new mayor needs to address first.
Bell and O'Malley have pushed a "zero tolerance" approach to policing that targets repeat offenders and aims to reduce serious crimes by sending out the message that police will arrest criminals for even petty violations.
But O'Malley has most impressed these voters at Eddie's, passing out a 39-page green booklet detailing his crime-fighting strategy -- modeled after successful efforts in New York, Boston and Pittsburgh -- to close down open-air drug markets and crack down on minor "quality of life" crimes.
Stuart Ortel, 40, of Northwood, a landscape architect, talked about violence on the city's streets as he stood at a glass case filled such gourmet tidbits as risotto with kalamata olives and Israeli couscous with grilled chicken.
"I think that O'Malley's emphasis on public safety -- in the schools and in the neighborhoods -- makes a lot of sense," Ortel said.
Improving the schools is at the top of many voters' lists.
As for Stokes' plan to reduce average elementary school class sizes to 15 pupils, Virginia Mock, 62, of Poplar Hill said he had discredited himself by talking about his experience as a school board member, but failing to use that experience to recognize that the city could never afford such small classes.
"I thought that was unrealistic," Mock said, "and as a school board member, he should know that, because of the city's lack of staffing and space."