Del. Samuel Q. Johnson 3rd has a modest head start against Rep. Tom McMillen, who is launching his campaign today in Maryland's new congressional 1st District.
"We already have three billboards up on Route 50, at Kent Island, Cambridge and Salisbury," Johnson says. "And others are in production."
But McMillen has a big equalizer -- roughly $500,000 in campaign funds -- and he's better known than any of his opponents. Some politicians say these assets make him the early favorite -- though not a shoo-in -- to win the Democratic primary March 3.
The Democratic nominee will face either Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest or his Republican primary opponent, Lisa G. Renshaw of Anne Arundel County.
To make it to the general election, McMillen must defeat Johnson, a popular Wicomico County legislator and chairman of the Eastern Shore delegation; Del. John C. Astle of Annapolis, Annapolis Alderman Ellen Moyer; and James Brown, a Caroline County Democratic Central Committee member.
Johnson looms as the largest obstacle to a McMillen victory. His entry into the race has kept some Shore Democratic leaders on the fence, even though they encouraged McMillen to run in the 1st.
Asked whether he'd endorse McMillen, House of Delegates Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. said yesterday, "I haven't even committed myself to having Christmas at home yet, let alone that."
All of the Democratic candidates share the problem of getting to know voters who have never seen the candidates' names on a ballot before.
The new 1st District was created by the General Assembly this year when it drew new boundaries for congressional districts. Legislators combined parts of three current districts to form the 1st, uniting the Eastern Shore, now represented by Gilchrest, with eastern Anne Arundel County and a sliver of South Baltimore.
McMillen complained bitterly because the legislature wiped out his current district, the 4th, which consists mainly of Anne Arundel County. Only last Friday did he finally say he'd run in the 1st. While he wavered, other Democrats entered the race. Now, only Moyer says she would consider getting out.
The breakdown of registered Democrats in the 1st encourages McMillen and his opponents. The 151,000 Democrats in the district include 58,000 in Anne Arundel County, 3,500 in Baltimore and 89,000 on the Shore.
To win the primary, McMillen needs to do well in Anne Arundel County and in Cecil County, the comparatively populous northern end of the Shore, where Johnson is not as well-known.
Astle, meanwhile, sees himself cutting into McMillen's Anne Arundel base and capitalizing on his legislative support of Eastern Shore concerns to win support there. Johnson must win big on the Shore to turn back McMillen and Astle.
"It's going to be a real test for some of these folks to demonstrate that they can organize outside of a state legislative district," said one Democratic Party official, referring to Johnson and Astle.
Brown says he went to school in Anne Arundel County and once served on that county's Democratic central committee, which allows him to claim ties to both sides of Chesapeake Bay. But he lacks the base and vote-getting experience of the other candidates.
McMillen, who must overcome Shore voter resistance to a non-Shore candidate, is eager to note his chairmanship of the Chesapeake Bay caucus in the House and to distinguish himself from his liberal Maryland colleagues in the House.
He is taking a position on wetlands regulation, a hot issue on the Shore, that will sound weak to environmentalists but appeal to disgruntled property owners.
"No matter how you define wetlands, you can't dismiss property rights and you have to be able to include that in equations as well," he said.
A McMillen ally, state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel, says McMillen has a lot of political assets, including money and name recognition. Nonetheless, he said, "I think it's going to be a tough race."