Next week's congressional primary election might be called a sleeper.
Facing nominal opposition within their parties, six Maryland congressman and one U.S. senator are expected to win nomination for re-election in the Super Tuesday contest. The state's two other congressmen -- Democratic Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland -- are running unopposed.
Despite the odds, challengers of two of the highly favored incumbents are playing an angle. They're avidly portraying Republican Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore as being too liberal.
They hope their message might sway the kind of Republicans who traditionally come out to vote in a primary even when their incumbent president doesn't have any major rivals -- hard-core party loyalists, most of them conservative.
That's the tack Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle and state Sen. Richard Colburn, both conservative Republicans, are taking in their closely watched campaigns to unseat Bartlett and Gilchrest, respectively.
"In this race, if you have 15,000 people show up, most of the folks who come out are going to be people who don't like Gilchrest's voting record," said Baltimore County lawyer David Fischer, 34, who ran unsuccessfully against Gilchrest in the 2002 election.
"In both cases, Sen. Colburn and Rolle ... both severely underestimate the difficulty of defeating an incumbent Republican candidate," said Kevin Igoe, a Republican political consultant and former executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "If you're a challenger to an incumbent member of Congress and you're being outspent in some cases 3-to-1, the handwriting is on the wall."
Also on the ballot seeking another two-year term are Democratic Reps. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, representing the 4th District; Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, representing the 8th; and Benjamin L. Cardin, in the 3rd, and Elijah E. Cummings, in the 7th, both of Baltimore. In the Senate race, Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski is seeking a fourth six-year term.
The ultraconservative Bartlett dismisses Rolle's notion that he is not conservative enough. Having earned near-perfect ratings from the American Conservative Union, Bartlett is anti-abortion, opposes gay marriage, favors lower taxes and has co-sponsored legislation to require that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the House and Senate.
"There's not a whole lot of room to my right," Bartlett, 77, said.
Bartlett, first elected in 1992, has been an inventor, farmer and physiologist. He is running for a seventh term representing the rock-solid conservative 6th District, which spans seven counties from Western Maryland to the Susquehanna River.
His challenger, Rolle (pronounced Rah-lee), says Bartlett's voting record has strayed from Republican ideology and reveals a lack of support for President Bush's agenda.
Rolle points to Bartlett's opposition to the death penalty, hesitant support for the Iraq war and misgivings about the Patriot Act as examples.
"I'm the consistent conservative in this race," said Rolle, an Army reservist who said he is running, in part, because he is alarmed by excessive congressional spending.
Bartlett said he objects to the death penalty on moral grounds (although he did vote in 1998 to sustain a death-penalty provision for drug kingpins), supported the Iraq war but wanted to have U.N. backing and favors the Patriot Act, but not if it tramples civil liberties.
"I'm very supportive of Bush's agenda," Bartlett said. "I guess he needs an issue," he added, referring to Rolle.
Rolle trails Bartlett in campaign funds as of the most recent filing Feb. 11, having raised $96,000 compared with Bartlett's $247,000.
For the second time in two years, seven-term incumbent Wayne T. Gilchrest is facing an aggressive challenger who says the veteran lawmaker is out of step with the conservative 1st District.
State Sen. Richard F. Colburn, who in 21 years in the General Assembly has earned a reputation as an indefatigable campaigner, is waging what he describes as a low-budget effort to unseat Gilchrest, 57, a former high school civics teacher who grew up in New Jersey.
It is a race that both sides say might depend as much on turnout as issues in the sprawling 12-county district that stretches from the rural lower Eastern Shore to suburban neighborhoods in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties. The campaign has been rough, with complaints from each candidate about dirty tricks that include phony e-mail accounts and slanted phone surveys.
In 2002, Gilchrest fought off a well-financed effort by Fischer, who spent more than $250,000 of his own money in a bid for his first elective office.
This time around, Gilchrest has more than doubled Colburn's take, $350,000 to $140,000. In the 2002 primary, the conservative Club for Growth, a Washington interest group, pumped nearly $200,000 into Fischer's campaign. The group also supports Colburn, but only to the tune of about $5,000.
Fischer says conservatives aren't writing off Colburn, particularly since his supporters are thought to be more likely to go to the polls for an election that all agree has not generated much excitement. Turnout, Fischer predicts, will be less than half the 55,000 GOP voters who came out in 2002 when Gilchrest overwhelmingly won.
Tony Caligiuri, Gilchrest's chief of staff, says his candidate will spend much of almost $200,000 cash on hand on a get-out-the vote effort, telephone canvassing and radio ads.
"The whole idea of a poor turnout hurting us is just a Hail Mary pass," Caligiuri said. "Colburn is unknown in 80 percent of the district."
Colburn, who in addition to his duties in the General Assembly is town manager of Federalsburg in Caroline County, has pounded the low-key Gilchrest for his self-described moderate stance on "conservative red-meat issues." Gilchrest has supported abortion rights (except late-term abortions) and limited gun control, for instance.
Gilchrest, whom Colburn calls a "radical environmentalist," has for years drawn support from state and national environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters and GOP leaders, who are loath to cross an incumbent who has held office since 1990.
"Gilchrest is still rated as one of the 30 most liberal Republicans in Congress," said Stephen Moore, who heads the Club for Growth. "Colburn definitely has a shot, particularly if he catches Gilchrest asleep at the switch."
Sun staff writer Jeff Barker contributed to this article.