Voters go to the polls today to select Democratic and Republican nominees for almost every elected office in Maryland, less than three months after the state's highest court scrambled the legislative redistricting process.
The new map is forcing State House veterans to square off against one another in several unexpectedly competitive races and - depending on what voters decide today and in November - could lead to significant shake-ups in the leadership of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates.
But the most bitter challenge in today's primary election appears to be for Democratic nominee for comptroller. Outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening has sought to help his longtime ally, Secretary of State John T. Willis, by using leftover campaign funds to fuel harsh attack ads about incumbent Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.
Beginning at 7 a.m. today, voters will cast their ballots at more than 1,600 polling places across Maryland. Polls close at 8 p.m.
State elections officials expect that hotly contested races in three large jurisdictions could push turnout to about 35 percent - almost 7 percentage points higher than in the 1998 gubernatorial primary. Turnout is expected to be helped by today's comfortable weather, forecast to be partly sunny with a high temperature of about 85 degrees.
"The primary hasn't been all that heavy turn-out in the past, but the phones are just ringing off the hook here," said Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of elections. "It seems like there's higher interest than in the past."
Two other factors that might have an effect on voter turnout are tomorrow's anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and continuing voter confusion about the legislative redistricting process.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who is not on the ballot but spent the past several days campaigning with her former aide, Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, said she senses little excitement among voters.
"It's hard to be ebullient and buoyant. There's a World Trade Center cloud," Mikulski said. "I think people will do their duty. But the real excitement will be for the general election."
Del. Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Baltimore County Republican and the House Minority leader, said he has encountered many voters who aren't sure of their legislative district, despite having received new registration cards from the Maryland State Board of Elections.
"There's still some confusion out there," Redmer said. "People know where they live, and they know where they're going to vote. But I think there are a lot of people who aren't really sure who's going to be on the machine when they get there."
The lack of competitive gubernatorial primaries also might keep turnout down. Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. face only token opposition and are expected to be formally selected by their respective party's voters for the November general election.
Yet the contest between Willis and Schaefer might draw more Democrats to the polls. Willis jumped into the race just before the July filing deadline, and the race has drawn headlines during the past week because of Glendening's efforts to aid Willis and hurt his political rival, Schaefer.
Three of Maryland's most populous jurisdictions - Baltimore City, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties - feature Democratic primaries that also have been closely watched and might drive up voter turnout.
In Baltimore, voters will select a state's attorney in a competitive race for the first time in two decades. Attorney Anton J.S. Keating and City Councilwoman Lisa Joi Stancil are trying to block incumbent Patricia C. Jessamy's bid for a third term, and the winner of the primary will not face a Republican opponent in November.
Several veteran Baltimore lawmakers face tough races because the city's legislative map was extensively changed by the Court of Appeals. The court threw out Glendening's redistricting plan and drew up its own.
McIntosh was thrown into a district with three other incumbent delegates. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, saw her district split and merged with that of Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Senate majority leader. Blount chose to retire but has endorsed Del. Lisa A. Gladden's bid to unseat Hoffman in the new majority African-American district.
Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV also is facing a tough battle from Del. Verna L. Jones, who has received help from many prominent state Democrats because of Mitchell's decision to endorse Ehrlich for governor.
In Prince George's County, voters are picking a replacement for County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who cannot run again because of term limits. They face a choice among five candidates.
Montgomery's most competitive race is in the 8th Congressional District, where Democrats are fighting for the chance to take on incumbent Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. The three leading Democrats in the race are state Del. Mark K. Shriver, state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. and former Clinton trade negotiator Ira Shapiro.
Two other Maryland congressional districts also feature what are believed to be competitive primaries.
In the 1st District - which includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties - lawyer David Fischer is trying to unseat six-term incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest in a race between conservative and moderate Republicans.
Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and investment banker Oz Bengur are squaring off for the Democratic nomination for the 2nd District. The winner is expected to face Republican Helen Delich Bentley, who is seeking to return to the House seat she vacated in 1994, when she ran unsuccessfully for governor.
Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.