Once, several years ago in Annapolis, John R. Leopold dressed up as Abraham Lincoln to deliver a speech commemorating the slain president's birthday.
As he passed by his fellow delegates in the state legislature, he heard someone quip, "Where's John Wilkes Booth when we really need him?"
Leopold smiled when he told that story. He is used to the teeth-gnashing of his opponents. He pointed out that Lincoln was vilified in the Baltimore area -- not that Leopold is drawing any comparisons with Lincoln.
Leopold, a lanky Republican, is engaged in one of the nastiest and most expensive Maryland Senate races this year.
On Nov. 6, he hopes to unseat Democratic incumbent Philip C. Jimeno in District 31, which stretches from the Baltimore border to the Magothy River in northeastern Anne Arundel County. Observers say the campaign has grown as dirty as the creeks that wind through the region.
Leopold seems both unfazed by his position as the consummate outsider and unaffected by his opponents, who call him a shameless opportunist when they're being nice.
"This guy is always taking credit for things he didn't do. He sends a letter to everyone for every little thing he does, things that most legislators do as a matter of course," complained Del. W. Ray Huff, D-Anne Arundel.
In fact, Leopold did spend more state money on postage during the last fiscal year than either Huff or Jimeno.
Leopold, however, said the real reason he annoys many Democrats and even some Republicans is that he threatens their "good ol' boy" political network. "In the clash of ambitions, resentments and jealousies are inevitable," he said.
In 1982, Leopold surprised rival politicians when he became the first Republican to be elected a delegate in this heavily Democratic district, home to modest waterfront communities, industrial plants and sprawling shopping centers. He moved to Maryland about a year before that from Hawaii, where he lost his 1978 bid to become governor.
Leopold, 47, is an articulate man who used to paint abstract expressionist works and study Mandarin Chinese. Yet locally he is best known for his habit of standing along highways and holding a sign emblazoned with his name.
The same man who once wrote a play about Warren G. Harding and participated in art shows now boasts that he produces his own cable television ads and writes his political brochures.
"My parents wondered years ago how . . . did I ever get into politics," Leopold said.
It's a good question. Leopold said he hoped to bring creativity and sensitivity into an arena not usually known for such qualities.
His critics, however, say Leopold is only creative when it comes to finding new ways to get his name into newspaper headlines.
Leopold has courted reporters since his days in the Hawaii legislature in the 1970s. In 1978, an article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called him a "profligate self-promoter" who "has little influence and less power."
His current chorus of critics agree. They accuse him of distorting issues for political gain.
They point to the time last winter when he issued a news release accusing some Anne Arundel County officials of malfeasance. ("I said 'alleged' malfeasance," Leopold responded.) After an investigation, the state prosecutor said the officials did not commit any crimes.
In spring 1989, Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer accused Leopold of exploiting residents' cancer fears the name of publicity. Leopold told reporters that he had asked for an investigation into the possible link between drinking water and cancer in Maryland City. The water turned out to be safe, but the incident, some say, was vintage Leopold.
Leopold, however, said he merely tries to fulfill his duty as a member of "the loyal opposition" minority party, unlike some Republicans who forge "unhealthy alliances" with Democrats.
Leopold decided to try to pick off Jimeno last June, when he abandoned his years-long quest for the county executive seat because a poll showed he would lose the GOP primary. He brought with him the name recognition he earned during the executive campaign, for which he raised more than $160,000.
"He's changed the rules," said the stocky Jimeno, 43, from his sparsely furnished campaign headquarters on Fort Smallwood Road. "He's a professional campaigner."
Jimeno lamented that his insurance business and family responsibilities have prevented him from campaigning as hard as Leopold, who holds no other job.
Leopold, however, accused Jimeno of mentioning his family in order to draw a subtle contrast with Leopold's lifestyle. Leopold is childless and separated from his third wife.
Jimeno denied that he is making an issue of Leopold's personal life. "Should I ignore the fact I have a wife and two children or that I'm active in my church? My life is my family," said Jimeno, the son of a West Virginia coal miner. "Should I be embarrassed by that?"
Jimeno is hitting hard on his theme that he would be the more effective senator because he can work with the County Council, the governor and other state lawmakers.
"Leopold is not effective," agreed John Kabler, who represented several environmental groups that endorsed Jimeno. "He doesn't deliver anything."
Leopold said he has formed alliances with other delegates, despite his frigid relationship with some local and state politicians.