The most likely rivals for Howard County executive in next year's elections are well on their way raising money toward what most observers feel will be a classic grass-roots campaign.
Two County Council members - Chairman Guy Guzzone, 40, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, 33 - have raised nearly half the cost of recent countywide campaigns, state reports show, though the contest is still more than a year off.
County Executive James N. Robey is in his second term and cannot run for a third under county law.
Merdon has hinted he will run for the county's top office, and Democrats say Guzzone will, too, but neither has said so officially.
"I haven't announced yet, but I'm still seriously looking at it," Merdon said. "County executive is all I'm considering."
Guzzone is more reticent, though most Democrats assume he will enter the race.
"Guy would obviously be an excellent candidate and an excellent county executive," said county Democratic Party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler, who said she has not heard of any other Democratic candidate.
Said Guzzone: "I continue to point out to people that we have two years to go. We have significant work to accomplish, and it's too early to be announcing."
But it is not too early to raise money.
In annual state-required campaign finance reports due last week, Merdon reported $89,605 on hand, compared with Guzzone's $111,592. By comparison, Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is expected to run for re-election, reported $49,247.
The high mark for a recent county executive campaign came in Dennis R. Schrader's 1998 effort, which cost $256,470. Robey won that campaign with $120,000, but he spent $209,000 in 2002.
That is far below what is spent in larger counties. Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., for example, reported having $1 million on hand for his re-election campaign.
Most observers believe that costs for next year's Howard County executive campaign will remain under $300,000, but not all.
"[Next year] will break new ground on spending in this town. That's my gut," said advertising professional Roger Caplan, who helped Charles I. Ecker, the former county executive, win a close race in 1990. He predicted spending of $500,000 or more per campaign.
With 19 percent of Howard's voters registered as independents, new residents arriving daily, higher advertising, printing and polling costs, and the difficulty of getting people's attention, costs should rise this time, Caplan said.
"You have a whole new medium called the Internet. It's a very new but very effective way to target voters," he said.
County Republican Party Chairman Howard Rensin disagreed.
"I don't think it will be more expensive. It's going to be a contest of candidates rather than media," Rensin said. "People in Howard County like to know their candidate and know them firsthand. They're not motivated by a glitzy ad campaign."
Said Fiedler: "If you don't have the right candidate, it doesn't matter how much money you raise and spend. Howard voters are very intelligent voters, and they look beyond what the ads say."
The heavy expenses in Howard are typically printing and postage for direct mail ads, said Democratic Del. Frank S. Turner, who reported having $22,058 on hand.
State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Republican who last year as a member of the County Council considered running for county executive, reported having $51,414. Kittleman was appointed in October to fill the Senate seat of his late father.
The legislators with the most money are state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, an eastern County Republican expecting a tough re-election fight in her swing district. She reported $76,176 on hand. Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Democrat who might run against Schrader next year, had $48,272.
"I'm exactly where I should be for a delegate campaign, and it's a good start if I decide to run for something else," Pendergrass said.
Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Democrat, reported having $25,005 on hand, but he still carries $27,830 in debt, though $20,000 is a debt to himself.
Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a western county Republican, has about $20,000 in his campaign account, though he cannot run for re-election to the council because of term limits.
"I hope to help two or three Republicans in 2006," he said, though it is hard for any politician to rule out just one more race. Having the money "felt like it was a comfort spot," he said.
"You never know what's going to happen."