Three days before the filing deadline, Baltimore County Republicans are left without an established candidate for county executive, after their top choice said yesterday he won't run.
GOP leaders say several people are considering the race against incumbent James T. Smith Jr., and they are hopeful at least one will step forward before Monday's deadline.
But some expressed surprise that at such a late date, the only Republican in the race for the highest office in Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s home county is a maintenance worker with no political experience.
"I think it's disappointing," Douglas B. Riley, a Republican who lost to Smith in 2002, said of the party's position in the race. "I believe that it's important to have the political discourse between two candidates. The competition is good, even if one candidate does not have a great chance, because it forces the other to define positions."
The presumed candidate among many Republicans was state Deputy Transportation Secretary James F. Ports Jr., who said as early as January that he was considering a run at the urging of Ehrlich.
Ports said yesterday that he decided to run two weeks ago but changed his mind last week after realizing he wanted to spend more time with his family. The Perry Hall resident has two sons in college and a daughter entering high school.
"I just didn't feel like I could give it a 110 percent on the campaign knowing I'd be pulled in so many different directions with my kids," said Ports, a former state delegate.
Chris Cavey, chairman of the Baltimore County GOP, said Ports was "in everybody's mind" as the candidate for county executive and "perhaps maybe we took it too much for granted."
Cavey said he knows of two men and a woman in the party who are considering entering the race. He declined to identify them.
"It is my opinion that someone else will step forward," Cavey said. "I do not picture this as a position of doom and gloom or panic."
Riley is running for a state Senate seat, and many other prominent county Republicans are running in other races or have said they are not interested in mounting a campaign.
Baltimore County voters have elected only two Republicans to executive, and given the county's strong Democratic leaning, even an established party candidate would face an uphill campaign against Smith, political observers said.
Potential opponents might have been scared off by Smith's sizable campaign account, they said.
When the state released campaign finance reports in January, Smith had $1.5 million in his treasury.
As of yesterday, Smith, a Democrat in the final year of his first term, had not filed with the county election board to run for re-election. His campaign spokesman, Sterling Clifford, dismissed rumors that Smith was considering a run for attorney general, saying he would seek re-election instead.
"This election year, the county executive was going to talk to the people of Baltimore County about our ongoing renaissance" of the county, Clifford said. "That was the plan, no matter who did or didn't get into the race, and that's still the plan today."
The other Democrat in the race is John F. Weber III, a former county parks and recreation director, who said his campaign would focus on talking to people rather than raising money.
The Republican candidate is Norman J. Cioka, a county maintenance worker who said he has not held any major fundraisers.
T. Bryan McIntire, the only Republican on the seven-member County Council, said he did not know of any other party members considering a run.
"The party has to put up a very credible candidate or they shouldn't put one up at all," said McIntire, saying that a weak campaign would be "a waste of time and effort."
He said a "credible candidate" is someone who knows the workings of county government and can raise money in a short period of time.
He said he believed it was too late for anyone to mount a serious challenge to Smith.
"We would be better off to leave Smith alone and let him do whatever he will, and concentrate on other elections," McIntire said.
The last Republican county executive was Roger B. Hayden, who scored a come-from-behind win in 1990 but was defeated by C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger four years later.