As he campaigns around Carroll and western Baltimore County, state Senate candidate J. Jeffrey Griffith, the Democrat, says he's in a tight race with a "right-winger," a "fundamentalist," a "religious extremist" who would impose his opposition to abortion on everyone else.
Larry Haines, the Republican, has recently taken to calling Griffith a "religious bigot" for attempting to stigmatize his religion. Church-going is hardly a handicap in the 5th District, Haines said, suggesting that Griffith's attacks will backfire. "I think that type of campaigning here is unusual and will cost him votes."
The candidates differ on plenty of taxing and spending issues. But abortion has dominated the contest.
Abortion-rights activists around the state look to Griffith as the potential 32nd vote to prevent a recurrence of the anti-abortion filibuster that blocked abortion-rights legislation in the last session. And Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who sees the potential for another ally in the Senate, has made campaign appearances on Griffith's behalf.
Griffith, who has taught English at the Community College of Baltimore and recently earned a law degree, is completing his second term as a Carroll County commissioner.
Haines, who started out as a farmer and built a real estate business, defeated Sen. Sharon Hornberger in last month's bitter Republican primary, in which abortion also was an issue.
A deacon in the Church of the Open Door, a large independent congregation that meets in Westminster, Haines often campaigns on themes of "family values." He has said he would take part in an anti-abortion filibuster if the opportunity should arise. With support from anti-abortion groups, Haines says he opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.
The 5th District consists mostly of rural and newly suburbanized eastern and central Carroll County precincts, but also juts into thickly settled sections of western Baltimore County. A name-calling, high-stakes General Assembly campaign is unusual in this area.
"It used to be in Carroll County that if you spent money on a campaign it was a negative," said Herb Smith, a political science professor at Western Maryland College. As recently as the late 1970s, he said, campaigns for the General Assembly could be waged for $1,500 or less.
In attempting to move up from county commissioner, where voters look for pragmatism and deftness with local problems, Griffith enters an arena that asks not only for those qualities, but for an ideological profile that suits the district.
In looking Griffith over for Senate, some voters may feel as Sean Gibbons does.
"On the local level, like funding education, preserving the environment, I think Jeff has done a good job," said Gibbons, a local political activist who welcomed Griffith's support in a fight to dim the flashing lights on a radio tower in a residential area.
But in the Senate, Griffith would vote on abortion and other issues that carry more ideological freight. And here, Gibbons says, his conservatism lands with Haines.
Carroll tends to vote conservatively, giving majorities to Republican candidates who lost badly in U.S. Senate races in 1986 and 1988.
Even Griffith's connection to Schaefer could be an issue for some voters. Their relationship goes back 12 years, when Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore and Griffith was on the Carroll County school board. Griffith's brother is on Schaefer's staff.
Some voters "have fears that Jeff is going to be a rubber stamp for Schaefer, and he's a spender," said V. Laney Harchenhorn, who was a Republican delegate from Carroll between 1975 and 1987. "Our delegation always prided ourselves on how cheap we were."
On the other hand, the Schaefer connection "could work to the benefit of the county if it's a two-way street," Harchenhorn said.
Griffith reasons that a legislator can't do much in Annapolis these days without a friendship with the governor. "He takes care of those who cooperate with him and crushes those who don't," Griffith said.
When the candidates talk about issues other than abortion, Griffith cites his support for education and expansion of social services as a county commissioner. Haines looks at the price tag, the tax burden, and calls it a "liberal" record.
And Griffith says that in the context of providing needed social services, "Hell yes, I'm a liberal."
Haines sees his experience in business, and his lack of it in public office, as giving him a keener eye for finding budget waste.
And, hoping to tap local outrage over the proliferation of portable trailer classrooms in schools, Haines says he would "fight for adequate facilities, not portables."
The rapid residential growth that is turning Carroll's pastures into subdivisions, crowding classrooms and raising property tax bills is an issue that can potentially damage both Senate candidates, said Manchester Mayor Elmer Lippy, who is running for county commissioner.
Griffith was one of the three commissioners who presided over these changes in the county character, said Lippy, a Democrat who supports Griffith. But growth can also work against Haines, Lippy said, because Haines is a Realtor who benefits from growth.
Lately the district race has become a fight for the mostly Democratic Baltimore County precincts, which make up about one-fifth of the district. Both candidates profess to be concentrating their efforts there.
Del. Larry LaMotte, D-Carroll-Balto.Co., who joined Griffith in a recent door-to-door swing through a Randallstown neighborhood, put the strategy in explicit terms. "The word is spreading out in the Jewish neighborhoods about his [Haines'] fundamentalism," LaMotte said. "The fundamentalists have made it very clear they want a Christian America."