Most open their doors a bit confused, even quizzical.
For Catherine Benton, 85, the tall man standing on her driveway one recent afternoon was recognizable as the "medical guy" from Baltimore. But like many Anne Arundel voters in the sprawling 3rd Congressional District, the details of the race are not so clear.
"I may vote for Beilencome. Am I saying that right?" she asks, moments after Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, one of the many contenders for the Democratic nomination, leaves her driveway.
"Or Ben Cardin. I do like Ben Cardin," she adds.
Only the Democratic congressman is running for Senate, not for re-election, she's reminded, making the race for the seat, open for the first time in 20 years, a free-for-all.
Such are the challenges of campaigning in an oddly configured district spilling into portions of four counties and composed of an enormously diverse voter base.
Eight Democrats and eight Republicans are vying for the congressional district, which was stretched into its current shape by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 2002 redistricting map. Many believe the reapportionment was in part an attempt to punish Cardin, who flirted with the idea of challenging Glendening for governor in 1998.
Still, Cardin has won handily since then, and Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1 in the district - a reality that political observers say will make a GOP win difficult.
The district's Democratic voters are evenly divided among Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel, with the remaining 10 percent in Howard County.
In a primary where only one candidate holds an elected public office, this is a race where the undecided voter dominates. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Anne Arundel County, where candidates are stepping up their campaigning efforts, relying on local officials, politicians and even athletic coaches to increase their profile in an area that could prove to be the ultimate battleground in the Sept. 12 primary.
"Anne Arundel is the place to be," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I think Anne Arundel County is really going to be the deciding area."
Aside from perennial candidate John Rea, none of the Democrats are from Anne Arundel, though one has significant work experience in the county. Baltimore County state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger is the only candidate who has won an election before.
Also running on the Democratic side are Beilenson, former Baltimore City health commissioner; John P. Sarbanes, an attorney and son of U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes; businessman Oz Bengur; Kevin O'Keeffe, a former high-level government aide in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County; Andy Barth, a former WMAR-TV reporter; and Mishonda M. Baldwin, an attorney and retired Army officer.
The difficulty in campaigning in Anne Arundel is that it is an increasingly conservative district. This is a county where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, won 65 percent of the vote in 2002 and where the Republican base has been steadily growing.
A Sun poll released last week showed that 48 percent of Anne Arundel voters say Republicans are better able to handle the most important problems facing the state, while 36 percent picked Democrats. Statewide, the numbers were reversed: 47 percent of likely Maryland voters say Democrats are better attuned to problems, while 36 percent named Republicans.
And if Anne Arundel is the place to be for the Democrats right now, its role in the Republican primary is even more decisive. Nearly half of the district's Republican voters are in Anne Arundel.
Physician Gary Applebaum, the leading Republican candidate in raising funds, is beginning his campaigning here.
With many of the Democratic candidates falling to the left of the spectrum, appealing to Anne Arundel voters can pose candidates with a marketing challenge.
"The county is actually very conservative," said Robert J. DiPietro, former mayor of Laurel who previously worked for County Executive Janet S. Owens. "But they're Reagan Democrats. They are generally very strong on fiscal conservative politics.
"They are very educated and astute so it'll be tough for candidates to repackage themselves."
Candidates will likely seize on issues like the environment that will resonate with conservative and progressive Democrats, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda-based public opinion research firm.
"You don't want to run as a liberal Democrat there," he said. "You want to avoid associations with harder left-wing groups.
"You need to moderate your rhetoric and positioning at least to stay in tow in parts of this district," he added.
Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, is spending a lot of time in Annapolis, where her name recognition is elevated, said campaign manager Lisa Nissley. Annapolis has a more progressive base than most other parts of Anne Arundel, political observers say.
When Hollinger made an announcement that she was being endorsed by the Maryland State Teachers Association, Annapolis was the site of the news conference.
She has also been out knocking on doors in the northern part of the county with local delegates and senators. "I would say a lot of the people are not aware of the race until you make them aware of the race," said Hollinger.
O'Keeffe, who has worked as a high-level aide in Anne Arundel, said his time spent there gives him an edge with the largely undecided voters. "Having worked for the county for six years, I really understand the issues in the county," O'Keeffe said. "And there is really nobody from there but John Rea. The opportunity in Anne Arundel is there."
The candidates say Anne Arundel voters have received their messages well, responding to many of the issues that interest other parts of the district, such as health care, the war in Iraq and the economy.
In an area where there are many veterans and active military members, concerns about the war and the Pentagon's base realignment and closure process are especially widespread.
That was evident on a recent afternoon in the Four Seasons neighborhood in western Anne Arundel, where American flags waved from nearly every house. "Support our troops" bumper stickers were common. Men with military-emblazoned hats and shirts were frequent, and stories of Iraq casualties were mentioned more than once.
John Sarbanes was knocking on doors with Anne Arundel County Council candidate Gerald J. "Jamie" Benoit Jr., who is running for the 4th District seat.
Benoit, who grew up in the neighborhood, introduced Sarbanes to voters, most of whom did not know who was running in the race nor for whom they were going to vote.
"I'll look into it," said Larry Voss, 39, as he took campaign literature from Sarbanes.
"I'm really still making up my mind," said another Democratic voter, Stanley Baker, 59. "We've got a lot of good candidates."
Beilenson said he is in the midst of a six-week effort in which he goes door-to-door in different parts of the county. "Every day I'm in Anne Arundel," said Beilenson.
Benoit, the council candidate, said that's time well spent for any candidate.
"Most of the candidates here are virtually unknown," he said. "These precincts here are very, very important. These are persuadable voters."
Mishonda M. Baldwin, Howard County, an attorney and retired Army officer
Andy Barth, Howard County, a former WMAR-TV reporter
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore City, a former city health commissioner
Oz Bengur, Baltimore County, a businessman
Paula C. Hollinger, Baltimore County, a state senator
Kevin O'Keeffe, Baltimore City, a lawyer and former government aide in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County
John Rea, Anne Arundel County, a salesman and perennial candidate
John P. Sarbanes, Baltimore County, an attorney and son of incumbent U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes
Bruce R. Altschuler, Howard County, a dentist and owner of a consulting business
Gary Applebaum, Baltimore County, a physician
Rick Hoover, Anne Arundel County, a minister
Eugenia Korsak Ordynsky, Howard County, an attorney
Scott Smith, Anne Arundel County, a businessman
Paul Spause, Howard County, an aerospace engineer in private industry and formerly in the Air Force
David P. Trudil, Baltimore County, an executive vice president of a diagnostics manufacturing company
John White, Anne Arundel County, owner of a sales and marketing company