Jeff Stein is in many ways an accidental candidate for Congress. He ran on a whim for the Republican nomination for Maryland's 8th District seat, expecting to finish third out of three in the primary.
Instead, he bested his opponents by double digits, winning 46 percent of the votes. So he finds himself in the daunting position of challenging Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the two-term Democratic congressman who is seen as a rising star in state politics.
Why run, especially now, as he juggles a full-time job as a Rockville attorney and awaits the birth any day of his third child under the age of 4? "It seemed like a good idea at the time," Stein, 31, said recently. "I don't like to draw attention to myself," he added. "I don't know what I was thinking."
Van Hollen, on the other hand, has worked toward this job since he entered the General Assembly in 1991, first as a delegate and then as a two-term state senator. In 2002, the Kensington attorney ran against eight-term Rep. Constance A. Morella, a popular and liberal Republican, and won the seat that represents a large swath of Montgomery County and a sliver of Prince George's County.
Van Hollen, 47, considered jumping into this year's race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes before deciding to run for re-election. He insists he is taking this campaign seriously, despite winning with 75 percent of the vote two years ago. But he has devoted much of his politicking to helping Democratic candidates in other states win seats in the House as co-chairman of the party's Red to Blue program.
"I think it's very important that no member of Congress take things for granted, and we're not," he said.
The major party candidates face a challenge from the Green Party. Gerard P. Giblin, a 48-year-old French teacher from Silver Spring, said he reluctantly entered the race because the progressive community felt Van Hollen was letting them down, most notably on the war in Iraq.
Giblin favors immediate and responsible withdrawal from Iraq, something he believes can be accomplished in two or three months. If the Pentagon says it can put a division on the ground anywhere in just one month, Giblin says, he figures his plan gives more than enough time. He also said he wouldn't vote to spend a cent more on the war, only what it would take to bring U.S. troops home.
If Van Hollen would say those things, Giblin says, he wouldn't have had to embark on his uphill race.
Van Hollen says it is not as simple as that. "I think we should be leaving," he said, "but I'm opposed to an immediate and total withdrawal." He says the political situation on the ground needs to be further resolved before the U.S. pulls out, but he supports proposals to start reducing the number of troops. He was not yet in Congress when it voted to authorize military action in Iraq.
Wherever he goes, Van Hollen says, voters are concerned about what is going on over there.
"An overriding theme has been that people want a Congress that will hold the Bush administration more accountable," Van Hollen said. "The war in Iraq is very much on people's minds. There's a growing feeling that the war in Iraq has made us less safe, not more safe."
Stein doesn't seem to support the war - he says he's "not very hawkish" - but says it's up to members of Congress not to disparage President Bush's efforts. Instead, he says, they should support the course he has chosen. Stein says he hopes the U.S. will learn lessons from the mistakes made in Iraq should there be any future wars.
"If a war is in progress, I tend to want to be supportive," he said. "If Congressmen are overly critical, it ... encourages the enemy."
Van Hollen's campaign coffers dwarf those of his opponents - his September campaign finance report showed he had raised $1.5 million. Stein says he has just recently raised a little money and has more than $10,000. Giblin has raised next to nothing.
Stein's campaign is small and underfunded, but he has much to say. He spends his down time - the hours after the kids are asleep, typically - writing what amount to essays on topics of the day from Iraq to immigration to foreign trade. He calls himself an "older-style" politician, favoring the Founding Fathers over the elected officials of today. He says he likes to "fly below the radar," something that is the antithesis of modern politicking.
He says he wishes he had enough money for a mailing to every house in the district to get out his positions, but "stamps cost money." He thinks maybe he'll target a few precincts to see if that helps to get his message across in a tangible way by Election Day.
Giblin also complains about running without much money or time. He says he didn't have the "luxury" of taking a leave of absence from his job to focus on the campaign. But he appreciates the limited forum he has been given to talk about his ideas.
"I have very, very good friends asking me, 'Why are you doing this?'" he said. "I said, 'If we don't do something, it's never going to change.'"