LA PLATA -- There were no balloons or signs, or marching band. Not even a press release.
GOP congressional candidate Wayne T. Gilchrest didn't really kick off his campaign against Representative Roy P. Dyson, D-Md.-1st, last week. He sort of strolled into it.
Easing his rumpled frame onto a bench in front of the Charles County government offices, the 44-year-old Kent County teacher outlined the fall campaign, peering at notes he had recently scratched on a yellow legal pad.
The major issues of his campaign will be "character, morality, integrity," declared Mr. Gilchrest, as if they were chiseled in stone. Political leaders should not "inherit wealth and power," he added, but offer "moral imagination."
The noble imagery is a coded attack aimed at Mr. Dyson, who has been plagued by ethics woes and high negative ratings among his constituents.
But the Dyson camp has a formidable arsenal of its own.
It will remind voters of the decadelong accomplishments of the five-term Democrat, ranging from constituent services to federal contracts it helped secure for the 13-county district.
And the congressman will paint Mr. Gilchrest -- who came within 1,500 votes of beating Mr. Dyson in 1988 -- as a candidate whose views are out of touch with the conservative 1st District. Some of Mr. Gilchrest's Republican brethren also harbor such views and wonder if the nominee should moderate some of his stands.
"Mr. Gilchrest's more liberal than Mr. Dyson," said Christopher Robinson, the congressman's campaign manager, who also said the GOP candidate "doesn't have a legislative record."
On many issues, Mr. Gilchrest is clearly to the left of Mr. Dyson.
The GOP candidate favors abortion rights, while the 41-year-old Southern Maryland congressman backs abortion only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the woman.
Mr. Gilchrest opposed legislative efforts to protect the American flag, while Mr. Dyson voted in favor of them.
While Mr. Gilchrest backed curbs on developing non-tidal wetlands, the congressman introduced a bill that would have weakened those restrictions.
Mr. Dyson has opposed gun control, but Mr. Gilchrest said he favors curbs on assault weapons and a federal waiting period for handguns, a move that Mr. Robinson said would be "anathema" to many voters.
Mr. Gilchrest brushes aside the liberal and conservative labels, and has often called himself "an American" or a "populist."
Some Republican leaders, however, prefer traditional labels -- and plan to ignore Mr. Gilchrest's stands on the issues. A press release from the National Republican Congressional Committee touts Mr. Gilchrest as a "mainstream conservative."
"I would call Wayne Gilchrest a conservative," echoed Carl M. Loffler Jr., president of the St. Mary's County commissioners.
But other GOP officials are clearly defensive -- and occasionally downright hostile -- to some of Mr. Gilchrest's views.
"I won't say there's no concern," said William D. McGarity, chairman of the St. Mary's County Republican Central Committee, a supporter of Mr. Gilchrest who said some Repub
licans would like to see more conservative stands on abortion and gun control.
"He's going to have to moderate his views if he's going to beat Roy Dyson in November," said Delegate Richard F. Colburn of LTC Cambridge, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP congressional nomination and has yet to jump on the Gilchrest bandwagon. "I think the centerpiece of the Dyson campaign will be to paint Wayne Gilchrest as a liberal."
Meanwhile, Mr. Gilchrest's abortion-rights views lost him the support of Barry Sullivan, a Calvert County engineer and anti-abortion activist who polled second in the eight-way GOP race.
Still, Mr. Gilchrest's defenders say that Mr. Dyson's recent revelation that he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War will offset any attempts by the congressman to paint Mr. Gilchrest -- a Vietnam War combat veteran with a Purple Heart -- as a liberal.
Conservatives, said Mr. McGarity, take a "dim view" of conscientious objectors.
At the same time, Alex Ray, who ran the campaign of GOP candidate Mark Frazer, predicts that issues will be less important than the "gut feeling" voters have about the candidates themselves.
That process will start as early as this week, when Mr. Gilchrest hopes to begin running "biographical" television ads in Salisbury, as well as radio ads.
Republican officials also hope that Mr. Gilchrest will be boosted this time by the active help of the NRCC, which has said the 1st District race is its top priority.
The NRCC already has dispatched a political consultant to assist the Gilchrest camp and is now trying to line up GOP luminaries for three major fund-raisers. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp has been approached for the first fund-raiser in mid-October, said Tony Caligiuri, press spokesman for Mr. Gilchrest.
Although Republicans said that the Gilchrest campaign would be fueled with between $700,000 and $1 million in donations, estimates now are much lower. Mr. Caligiuri said the candidate hopes to raise about $200,000 in individual contributions and an uncertain amount from political action committees.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dyson has spent the last two weeks "in a fund-raising mode" and hopes to collect about $350,000 for the fall campaign, Mr. Robinson said.
The congressman has devoted his weekends to his re-election effort while Congress is still in session, and will take to the campaign trail full time when lawmakers take a break in mid-October, Mr. Robinson said.