OCEAN CITY - Mayor Martin O'Malley threw a cocktail party, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hosted a dessert reception. But Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was out to convince the crowd at the annual Maryland Municipal League convention here that he's the main course.
The gathering, which wraps up today, was one of the first chances for the state's mayors, public works directors and other local government officials to see the three likely major contenders in the 2006 governor's race together.
Ehrlich and O'Malley each spent part of yesterday at the convention and planned low-key schedules for the event, generally seen as a warm-up for the major August political schmooze fest at the Maryland Association of Counties' annual convention.
But not Duncan. Looking to capitalize on his long association with the group, dating from his days as a Democratic city councilman and then mayor of Rockville, he came early and stayed late - and brought a sizable campaign staff with him.
Smart strategy, said Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who has endorsed Duncan in the Democratic primary and who has attended the convention for decades.
"He's a very friendly guy himself, and these folks are the ones who are going to make or break him," Schaefer said.
Considered the dark horse in the governor's race, Duncan was, unlike his rivals, in overt campaign mode this week.
He showed up in Ocean City on Sunday, when he went on a kayak tour of the Nanticoke River with environmentalists before throwing an evening reception for 400 guests. He worked the crowds at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center on Monday and yesterday, and was scheduled today to tour Talbot County with local elected officials and politicos.
Lest anyone miss the point, he spelled it out in a statement issued by his campaign staff: "I've worked with so many of these local officials over the years. I believe it is important to spend time with folks, listening and learning. It's not enough to just show up for one day during campaign season for a photo op."
Despite a sore back from recent long car trips and the kayaking expedition, Duncan, 49, spent yesterday walking the aisles of the convention center exhibit hall, chatting with local government officials and vendors of everything a town could need, from streetlights to dump trucks.
Duncan said he attends the convention yearly because it's a good place to make "a lot of contacts" as well as to find out what's on people's minds.
"All the officials here are closest to the people," Duncan said. "You get the growth issues, the transportation issues, the trash issues, everything."
Passing the comptroller's booth, Duncan joshed with the former Baltimore mayor and governor - donning a comptroller's office hat at Schaefer's behest.
"He looks like a governor, doesn't he?," Schaefer asked his staff.
In a later interview, Schaefer said that Duncan, as a Montgomery County leader, faces a challenge in building name recognition in the Baltimore region and elsewhere in Maryland. But he said the executive is doing all the right things, and spending time at the municipal convention is one of them.
O'Malley, a Democrat, arrived at the convention about 1 p.m. yesterday. Clad in jeans and an untucked shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he had lunch with other league officials, then attended the annual membership meeting to elect league officers. To greet the line of well-wishers at his evening reception, he changed into a navy-blue suit.
Unlike Duncan, O'Malley had one aide with him for most of the day.
Ehrlich, a Republican, got to Ocean City yesterday morning, spoke at the annual dinner and hosted his reception last night.
Duncan's backhanded slap at his potential rivals for showing up at the convention for a photo opportunity is hardly the only time he has criticized the mayor and governor. In fact, on some issues, including slot machines and state funding for stem-cell research, he has managed to criticize them both for the same thing, no mean feat considering how little Ehrlich and O'Malley agree on. Duncan opposes slots and was a vocal supporter of state funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
O'Malley, who led Duncan in an April Sun poll by 20 points in a potential Democratic primary, tends not to mention his likely rival, saving his barbs for Ehrlich.
The governor also rarely mentions Duncan, who trailed Ehrlich, 38 percent to 44 percent, in a head-to-head pairing in The Sun poll.
Despite what the polls say or how he is treated by the other potential candidates, Duncan's supporters at the convention see a clear path for him to the governor's mansion.
Don W. Bradley, the mayor of Hurlock, a small town on the Eastern Shore, said he sees Duncan following the model of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who was a relatively unknown Prince George's County executive before winning the 1994 governor's race.
Bradley, who invited Duncan to a post-dinner reception Monday night with about 15 other local elected officials, said that Duncan is following Glendening's strategy of spending time at events like the municipal convention and listening to local officials throughout the state.
And like Glendening, Duncan offers experience in how to manage a government, Bradley said.
"It helps to know how to deal with people and make things run," Bradley said. "Doug does."
Like Bradley, many conventiongoers said they have known Duncan for years. But for others, his reputation preceded him.
On a final swing through the convention hall as the exhibitors were taking down their booths, Duncan ran into James V. McMahon Jr., a Republican town commissioner from Bel Air. McMahon, who had never met Duncan, stopped the executive to say that in the one, unfortunate time the state's eyes were focused on him - during the 2002 Washington-area sniper crisis - he earned the respect and gratitude of people all over Maryland.
"You were outstanding during that time," McMahon said. "You were very professional. You kept us calm and you gave us information. When you talked, I believed you."
Duncan paused and smiled.
"You just made my day," he said, before walking on in search of more hands to shake.