Compared with last year's election onslaught, Howard County's three July 4 parades last week were nearly politician-free - but beware because local supporters of presidential candidates are choosing sides and getting ready.
The closest thing to an elected official at the River Hill parade was Larry Blickman, a Democrat who lost a campaign last year for register of wills but hopes to try again in 2010. He brought his perfectly preserved 1965 AMC Rambler to show off.
At the Allview/Atholton event, where Democrats Del. Guy Guzzone and Councilwomen Jen Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty appeared, John and Fran Justice, 47-year residents, noticed the difference a year makes.
"I thought last year was a distraction because there were so many [candidates]," Fran said.
County Executive Ken Ulman, Sigaty, Del. Elizabeth Bobo - all Democrats - and nonpartisan school board member Ellen Flynn Giles attended the Longfellow parade in Columbia - along with a squad of Hillary Clinton for President campaigners.
Republicans seemingly are not that far along locally.
Other than local backers of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, county GOP Chairwoman Loretta Shields said she has not heard of Republican campaigns being organized yet.
"We'll see something coming into summer," she said.
Other Republicans appear split among former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has left the party to become an independent, fueling speculation of a possible third-party campaign.
Kristen Neville, once a legislative aide to former Del. Neil F. Quinter and a member of the Howard County Democratic Party state central committee, is actively organizing for Richardson, though Quinter said he has not made a choice. Neville is enthusiastic about Richardson's chances, despite the perception of him as a possible vice presidential choice.
"I would dispute the fact that he's not a front-runner. He's in double digits in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's working his way up, if not in the first tier, in the second tier," Neville said.
Neville, who is a full-time legislative aide for a Montgomery County state senator, agreed that Richardson is no political rock star like Clinton or Obama. But she argues that he has had more valuable experience as a governor, ambassador to the United Nations, Department of Energy secretary and occasional troubleshooter on delicate diplomatic missions to free captive Americans in places including North Korea and the Middle East. She is working hard for him locally, she said.
"We have regular meet-ups," she said, using the term popularized during the 2004 campaign.
The choice bedeviling most Democrats is between the two perceived front-runners, Clinton and Obama, and that has split some political families.
Pam Guzzone is a Clinton fan, while her delegate husband is backing Obama. Same for Sandra Gray - another Clinton fan while her husband, former County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, likes Obama.
"I do really think that it's time to have a serious, legitimate woman candidate. She's very smart, and she's learned lessons," Pam Guzzone said about Hillary Clinton, referring mainly to the 1994 health care reform failure spearheaded by Clinton as first lady.
"My biggest concern is that she's very polarizing," Guzzone said.
Her husband said Obama "seems like he has a certain spark. It's not just charisma. A sense of compassion, civility, you just feel it. I think the country needs that now."
Guy Guzzone said he has got nothing against others, though.
"I love Bill Richardson, I think he's great," he said. "There's a star quality to Hillary. I would take any of them."
David Marker, another Democrat backing Obama, said the campaign "is in the process of creating a formal structure," but the campaign is scheduling activities, including a meeting Wednesday evening at the east Columbia library and a recruiting effort aimed at young people. All the candidates likely will be represented at the county fair next month, he said.
The rap on Obama, of course, is that he has been a U.S. senator for only two years, but his supporters feel that is less important than the qualities he brings.
Carole Fisher, another Democratic central committee member, is the chief Clinton organizer locally, and she has a very personal inspiration for that.
"I met her a long time ago," during a photography session for then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, she said.
"I had had a mastectomy a few months earlier," she said, and told the first lady that "I look at what you go through every day. If you can do that, I can do my part."
Later in the event, Clinton came back to Fisher and said "that was such a nice thing to say, I appreciate that."
"My God, she goes to a different city every day and a different fundraiser every day. I admire her very much. She's a warm human being," Fisher said.