AFTER WATCHING Barbara A. Mikulski over three decades in public life, Marylanders have gotten to know her fairly well.
They would likely describe the Democratic senator as generally liberal, a trailblazer on issues of particular concern to women, and a feisty advocate for the little guy - willing to take on big government, big business, or simply the vicissitudes of life.
They may know that her carefully cultivated funny and folksy image is not consistent with her reputation in Washington, where she is regarded as quite prickly. But they probably don't care as long as she's prickly on their behalf.
In fact, that may be the secret of Ms. Mikulski's success, and why polls show she is among the most popular politicians in Maryland. At 68, she's still got a bark like a vicious terrier - as she demonstrated during a televised debate this week. But she's our terrier. And as a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she's well-positioned, no matter which party is in control, to champion Maryland causes. Over the years she's delivered, big time.
So it's particularly amusing that E. J. Pipkin, the freshman Republican state senator challenging Ms. Mikulski's re-election bid, complains she hasn't done enough to channel federal dollars back home, especially for programs to benefit the Chesapeake Bay. She is the channel, and her years of back-scratching relationships with GOP counterparts make her far more effective than any newcomer could ever be.
More absurdly, Mr. Pipkin, a wealthy former bond trader who has invested more than $1 million of his own money in the campaign, is also blasting the incumbent for voting "for higher taxes more than 350 times." The statistics are cooked up from a GOP playbook that counts not only votes for tax increases but also votes against tax cuts, to reduce the size of a tax cut, against repealing tax increases, against making tax cuts permanent and for "watered-down Democrat tax cut substitutes."
On this list, for example, is a 1992 proposal Ms. Mikulski supported that would have denied tax breaks to drug companies that raise prices above the rate of inflation. Not what most people would consider a vote for higher taxes. Not a bad idea, in fact.
Putting that silliness aside, though, where is this extra spending for Maryland supposed to come from if taxes are out? Other states? The federal budget is deeply in deficit and facing huge expenses. A platform that calls for lower taxes ought to be matched by a pledge to pursue reduced spending at home, not the opposite.
Mr. Pipkin, 47, a native of Dundalk, burst on the Maryland scene in 1999, leading a citizen protest to block the dumping of dredge spoil in the Chesapeake Bay near his home on Kent Island. The protest was ultimately successful - despite the objections of most elected officials in the state, including Ms. Mikulski, who came late to the cause because she feared the impact on jobs at the port of Baltimore.
In 2002, Mr. Pipkin parlayed his activist exposure and substantial bankroll into a campaign that toppled Walter M. Baker, a powerful veteran state senator.
The new senator's service in Annapolis has so far been undistinguished, though, limited by a doctrinaire conservatism that doesn't work well in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Mr. Pipkin promises the same approach on social issues in Washington, where he would have more company in support of such causes as banning gay marriage. But those conservative views are not reflective of Maryland as a whole, and Mr. Pipkin lacks the legislative skill and seasoning that might make policy differences worth overlooking.
This page has had its occasional quibbles with Senator Mikulski, but she is by far the best candidate for Maryland in this race.