Almost three weeks after a primary that wiped out two incumbents, the remaining candidates for Carroll County commissioner are struggling to show voters that they're much different from each other.
Most of the candidates mounted successful primary campaigns by saying they would not be like commissioners Donald I. Dell or Robin Bartlett Frazier. But with those two out of the running, many of the survivors admit that the campaign has become more difficult.
The six major-party candidates for the three seats often seem more alike than different.
"I've heard people say that," said Neil Ridgely, a Democrat known for sharply criticizing those he disagrees with. "Maybe it's just that we're all relieved. I mean, I had to sit next to [defeated Republican] Ed Primoff at a lot of those forums before the primary."
Although Ridgely wants to distinguish himself, leading Republican vote-getter Dean L. Minnich said he doesn't mind blending.
"I have no desire to go out of my way to separate myself from the people who are left, and in fact, I'd hate to see any candidates change their stories just to stand out," he said.
Minnich, a longtime newspaper editor and columnist, has refrained from changing his campaign since the primary. He got the most votes in that race despite having no government experience.
He presents himself as an anti-ideologue, someone who will convene diverse groups to discuss issues before taking any aggressive policy stances.
Some of his opponents have said privately that Minnich avoids trapping himself into unpopular positions with this tactic. But Minnich argues that voters shouldn't trust candidates with defined positions on every issue.
"If people want leadership by political rhetoric, then they don't need to vote for me," he said.
Minnich said the remaining candidates are close on most broad issues, with differences showing up only in the specifics. Given that, he said, he hopes voters choose him because they see him as open-minded and a clear thinker.
The one candidate with the least concern about distinguishing herself from the pack is incumbent Julia Walsh Gouge, who is seeking a fourth term.
Gouge spent the primary campaign reminding voters that she had battled Dell and Frazier on growth and water issues for the past four years, effectively separating herself from a board that had made many enemies.
The strategy worked, as she finished second in the Republican primary, about 5,000 votes ahead of Frazier and 7,000 ahead of Dell.
The lone remaining incumbent has not changed her message much since the victory. She emphasizes that the county must slow growth so it won't overwhelm schools, water supplies and emergency services.
She also promises that the new board will work better with Carroll's eight municipalities and with state officials.
Republican Perry L. Jones has said throughout the campaign that he is distinguished by his 22 years as a councilman and mayor of Union Bridge. Jones said that deciding on a pitch to voters is not easy.
"You don't really know what to do," he said. "I guess you just focus on the same points you've always focused on."
Like Minnich, Jones has avoided grand promises.
"You've got to be careful," he said. "If you promise too much, people will just come back and say you're nothing but a damned liar."
The three Democrats can't as easily afford such restrained stances. Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 10,000 among the county's 85,000 registered voters, so the Democratic candidates feel a greater urgency to gain attention.
Finksburg activist Ridgely stood out during the forums before the primary as one of the loudest critics of Primoff, Dell and Frazier. He admitted feeling disappointed that he wouldn't get to run against them in the general election.
"I think people are assured a bit more of a civil race," he said. "I feel like I'm running against responsible people. I hope it won't be a big snooze, though."
Ridgely says he will set himself apart from other candidates by presenting detailed plans for how he would change the county.
He said he would thoroughly revise Carroll's growth control laws, schedule more meetings at night so more working people could attend, and hire a county ombudsman.
"Do all the other candidates have specific plans for how to work in the context of a local government?" he asked. "I don't know."
Sykesville Councilwoman Jeannie Nichols has also presented detailed policy positions. She recently delivered her water platform standing on the bank of the badly depleted Liberty Reservoir.
Nichols' water ideas sound similar to those of her opponents, but she is different, she said. She said she has always been a vocal opponent of building a water treatment plant at Piney Run Park and a vocal proponent of using county wells in South Carroll.
Other candidates have only hopped on the bandwagon recently, she said.
Nichols joked that she is ready for the gloves to come off in the general election campaign.
She emphasized that although South Carroll issues have often dominated the campaign, she is the only candidate who lives in the area.
"I send my children to the overcrowded schools, and I have to live with the water bills and the growth," she said. "So people can feel assured that I identify with their concerns."
Democrat Betty Smith of Uniontown has portrayed herself as the truest opponent of growth, promising to halt it entirely in areas stricken by the drought.
Her campaign signs feature the slogan "Slow Growth."
"Other people are just now starting to say the things I started saying six years ago," she said.
Smith also claims that as a former Republican party official, she's the only candidate who embodies views from both parties.
"I don't see myself as being like everybody else," she said. "What I've been through -- leaving one party for another and being involved all these years -- it's not like what everybody else has been through."
Among candidates with other affiliations, independent Vince DePalmer introduced himself as a strong critic of the status quo at early campaign events but has not spoken at the last two commissioner forums.
He did not return calls seeking comment on his campaign.
A hearing is scheduled tomorrow at the Court of Appeals to decide whether a Green Party candidate, George W. Murphy III, should be on the ballot.
County elections officials have ruled that Murphy did not collect enough valid signatures to be put on the ballot. The party is challenging the decision.