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Gilchrest holding lead over 1st District rival

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In his toughest fight in a decade, six-term Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest last night was holding off a well-financed, conservative challenger in yesterday's Republican congressional primary.

Gilchrest led Dave Fischer by a margin of more than 3-to-2 with about a third of the precincts reporting in the 1st District, which includes all nine Eastern Shore counties and parts of three other counties.

Votes were still being tabulated in two other congressional primaries that drew widespread attention.

In one race, in Montgomery County's 8th District, Christopher Van Hollen Jr. was running slightly ahead of Mark K. Shriver in the nation's most expensive congressional primary. Shriver, a member of two celebrated families in American politics (the Kennedys and the Shrivers), raised $2.5 million - twice as much as Van Hollen - but Van Hollen won a spate of endorsements.

With two-thirds of the votes reported in the 2nd District Democratic primary, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger held a double-digit lead in his race against a spirited - and well-funded - challenge from businessman Oz Bengur.

Ruppersberger set his sights on Congress a year ago as his hopes for a gubernatorial bid dimmed. He made it known last fall that he would run for a seat if Gov. Parris N. Glendening would use redistricting to draw a new district favorable to Democrats. He did.

The winner of the primary will face former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who overcame token Republican opposition yesterday.

No U.S. House incumbents were knocked off in Maryland in the 2000 election, and none besides Gilchrest was seriously challenged last night. This year, there is an open seat - in the 2nd District - vacated by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is running for governor.

Democrats say they believe that seat, along with one held by Republican Constance A. Morella, gives the party opportunities to gain ground on the Republicans in the fall election. Currently, Democrats and Republicans split the eight congressional seats in Maryland.

In Gilchrest's district, Fisher, 32, who pumped more than $300,000 of his own money into his campaign, forced the veteran and self-described moderate into a lively primary.

The race drew national attention, including a flurry of television and radio ads for Fischer produced by the Washington-based Club for Growth, a conservative, anti-tax group that has drawn fire for helping to challenge an incumbent.

Television spots have been running on Salisbury and Baltimore stations in recent weeks with the tag line, "Gilchrest, shockingly liberal."

Outspent by Fischer and the Club for Growth, which raised more than $100,000, Gilchrest, 56, leaned heavily on support from party regulars and endorsements from President Bush and gubernatorial candidate Ehrlich.

Gilchrest, who since 1993 has refused to accept donations from outside his district, was backed by moderate legislators from the Republican Main Street Partnership.

The coalition raised more than $100,000 in defense of "one of our own," backing Gilchrest with an independent advertising blitz that the Fischer campaign says amounted to a violation of Gilchrest's self-imposed ban on outside contributions.

Fischer, who portrayed Gilchrest, a former high school teacher and decorated Vietnam veteran, as too liberal for the district where gun control is a key issue, was supported by the National Rifle Association. He criticized Gilchrest's vote for the Brady Bill and to ban assault weapons.

During his tenure in Congress, Gilchrest has been viewed by some as a maverick for his stands on environmental issues.

Gilchrest infuriated maritime officials with his successful opposition to a proposal for dredging the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the dumping of dredge spoil from Chesapeake Bay shipping lanes at a site near the Bay Bridge. Two years ago, he bucked state and national GOP leaders by supporting Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid.

The Shriver-Van Hollen race became one of the state's most closely watched.

With more than $6.5 million raised among the three Democrats and Morella, the race is the most expensive of the nation's 435 House districts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group. Much of the Democrats' money went to television advertising in the Washington market, where it cost candidates about $400,000 to compete in the final week.

It was a relatively polite race until the last week, when Shriver, a state delegate, released a TV spot accusing Van Hollen of misrepresenting Shriver's state legislative record in voter mailings.

A third candidate, Ira Shapiro, a former Clinton administration trade representative, sought to take advantage of the scrap, running a TV ad depicting two young boys - meant to represent his main rivals - flailing away at each other with boxing gloves.

According to a recent Sun poll, Shriver's most effective argument was that he had the best chance of the three to unseat Morella, an eight-term incumbent who had her toughest re-election fight two years ago. The man she beat in 2000, Terry Lierman, recorded a telephone message for Shriver in this election, saying he was the party's best hope against the popular Republican, whose campaign signs read simply, "Connie."

But Van Hollen seemed to gain momentum at the end of the race, picking up endorsements from the Washington Post and The Sun. His campaign handed out thousands of copies of the endorsements at Metro stops and spread the word with about 45,000 phone calls to likely Democratic voters in the district in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

In a race in which the candidates agreed on most major issues, Van Hollen used the endorsements to try to make the case that he was better qualified than Shriver and Shapiro.

Van Hollen faced an uphill fight, though, because of Shriver's money and family name. Shriver, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, raised about $2.5 million - about half of it from outside the state. He was heavily aided by labor and by such luminaries as tycoon Donald Trump and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is Shriver's brother-in-law. Shriver's uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and sister, television newswoman Maria Shriver, campaigned with him in the days before the election.

Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green, Chris Guy and Sarah Koenig and special correspondents Ayesha Ahmad and Catherine Matacic contributed to this article.

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