If you are an incumbent, this is not a good time for an election.
Instead of hitting the campaign trail, you are stuck in Washington raising people's taxes. It is not the kind of gift a congressman likes to take home.
But that's the way it is. Recession is in the air, President Bush's "Read my lips" philosophy has been turned inside out, the government has shut down for a day and the Republican ranks are split.
It almost makes a challenger's job easy.
"This is a special-interest Congress," says Republican Bob Duckworth, running against Democratic Representative Tom McMillen in the 4th District congressional race. "The budget process is an indication of this. It is a gridlock fiasco by a Congress that is beholden to special interests."
McMillen counters that he has worked hard for his district -- pointing with pride to an agreement that preserves most of the surplus land at Fort Meade as open space -- and says political action committee (PAC) money is needed to counter deep Republican coffers that could be tapped by his opponents.
And so goes this race for Congress, one that has brought both candidates out into the community, but rarely together. Budget votes have kept McMillen trapped inside the Beltway. Head-to-head battles are fought through fax machines.
Although two debates are scheduled for this week, the race probably will come down to whether Duckworth can take advantage of the perceived anti-incumbent backlash.
McMillen, a two-term incumbent, has amassed a thick bank book filled with contributions and PAC money totaling $416,000. Duckworth has raised $28,000 -- but only $4,000 from contributions. The rest he lent himself.
This is Duckworth's point: Too much money is being spent on campaigns, too many PACs contribute and that makes Congress put special-interest groups ahead of their constituents. It is an old refrain the 49-year-old Crofton candidate hopes will carry him to victory.
But McMillen has all the name recognition and confidence a congressman and former professional basketball player could want. A Crofton bachelor, McMillen says he has lots to bring home to his district, including a deal that preserved 7,600 acres of Fort Meade land as open space, taking it out of the clutch of developers.
He says he works hard to promote "quality of life" issues in his district, which includes all of Anne Arundel and parts of Howard and Prince George's counties. It is these issues McMillen stresses when asked about his campaign.
Meanwhile, Duckworth doggedly attacks the congressman's record, berating him on issues ranging from his relationship with special-interest PACs to the savings and loan crisis and just-concluded budget battle. He even goes after McMillen's pre-Congress experience.
"He came in playing basketball," Duckworth says. "I came in with 20 years of government service."
That service was with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he worked as an urban planner.
Duckworth did not have an easy childhood. He was born in Philadelphia to a teen-age mother and spent the first four years of his life in an orphanage. He was adopted and moved to Cecil County, where he helped his mother work a chicken farm. His father worked for DuPont.
"The first day my adoptive parents brought me home," Duckworth said, "I took an apple and threw it across the room. My parents told me I wasn't allowed to do that. I was introduced to real authority."
Just before his 18th birthday, he joined the 82nd Airborne as a medic and served in Germany, watching the Berlin Wall go up. He then went to college and eventually to HUD. He moved to Crofton in 1968; and 20 years later, he was elected president of the Crofton Civic Association.
During his two-year tenure, he battled with some of the most gripping problems facing the town: comprehensive rezoning, the fight against the eastern bypass, the widening of Route 3 and the dispute over development at Crofton Country Club.
The owner of the club had proposed a number of projects over the years, including hotels and condominiums. Duckworth negotiated a compromise allowing the owner to build projects along Route 3, but preserving the rest of the rest of the land as open space.
Though he faced criticism that he was either too cozy with developers or too hard on them, the settlement ended nearly a decade of struggle over the land. "He had to deal with it to resolve it, and a lot of people didn't want him to deal with it," said James Hickey, who served as association town manager under Duckworth.
Duckworth is married and has two teen-age children. This is his first attempt at a major public office.
McMillen was elected to his House seat in 1986 after retiring from the NBA's Washington Bullets. He was born in New York and raised in Pennsylvania. In 1970, he was the most highly recruited high school basketball player in the nation and was the first high school student to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.