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The governor of Maryland didn't attend this year. Nor did the two leading candidates for U.S. Senate. But there was a special guest at the J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake on Wednesday – a cooling breeze off the Chesapeake Bay.

An estimated 4,000 gathered in unusual low-80s comfort for the annual charity fundraiser, known as much for its usually blazing July temperatures as the politicians it has attracted since 1977.

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"What an event! What an event! And it's not even an election year," said George S. Owings III, a onetime Democratic delegate who now serves as veteran affairs secretary in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's Cabinet.

Owings, greeting friends from both parties at what he estimated was his 20th Tawes festival, said he was enjoying "the conversation, the lies, the mistruths" he was hearing at the quintessentially Maryland celebration.

"It's where everybody's your friend for a day," he said.

And for once, the friendship wasn't built on shared suffering.

"The weather's perfect here. We've been here when it seemed like 120 degrees," said Del. Teresa E. Reilly, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties.

The politics were more muted than in years when the State House is up for grabs, but delegates, senators, county council members and aspirants to elected office still flocked to what for many is a must-attend occasion.

Hanging over the festival was the absence of Hogan, who remains very popular on the Eastern Shore after carrying the region by landslide numbers last year. At the entrance of the mammoth tent put up by lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano was a scroll where guests could inscribe best wishes to the governor in his fight against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a freshman Republican who came down from Dundalk along with the three new GOP 6th District delegates who also swept in on the Hogan tide, said everybody there missed him.

"Everybody loves our governor," Salling said. "We just want the best for him right now."

Representing the Hogan administration was Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford, who made the rounds in a bright red Maryland State Police shirt.

"If it had been hot, I'd have told the governor, 'You have to do it,'" he said jokingly.

The other statewide official making the rounds was Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat who said he hasn't missed Tawes since he was elected in 2006.

Franchot said one of the reasons he loves the festival is because it's named after Crisfield's own Tawes, the only person in Maryland history to serve as treasurer, comptroller and governor.

"It refreshes me to come down here, even though it's generally hot," Franchot said. "You get to recharge your batteries and meet with some great people."

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According to Franchot, Tawes liked the job of comptroller best.

Among the people the comptroller reconnected with was retired Del. John F. Wood Jr., a conservative Democrat from St. Mary's County who served in the House when Franchot was one of the chamber's most outspoken Montgomery County liberals.

"He was on one side of the fence and I was on the other," Wood said, noting Franchot's rightward turn on fiscal issues in recent years: "I'm pleased to say he's come around to our side."

While Maryland's next gubernatorial race is three years off, there were reminders of the election next year to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

Neither of the main Democratic contenders was there because the U.S. House was in session, but Rep. Chris Van Hollen clearly won the visibility contest. His signs lined the route into town and his volunteers were out in force. There was no sign of the campaign of rival Rep. Donna Edwards.

But Chrys Kefalas was there, meeting voters as he contemplates an uphill battle for the seat as a Republican. The former counsel to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he'd been getting a great response to his roots in the crab business as part of the family that runs the Costas Inn in Dundalk.

There was a modest presence for the presidential campaign of former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in the person of his state director, Mollie Byron, and his son Will, who's coordinating college outreach.

But amid all the talk of politics, there are many who turn out for Tawes for other reasons — cold beer, fresh seafood, camaraderie and tradition.

Deborah White of Crisfield said she had little interest in the politics or politicians.

"No, I'm just here for the food," she said.

The plate in front of her was piled high with corn on the cob, steamed crabs, clams and other delights.

"The fish is the bomb," White said.

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