AMERICN CORNER — AMERICAN CORNER -- In the heartland of Maryland's 1st Congressional District, where towns not much bigger than their zip codes have such inviting names as Friendship and Harmony, Republican Thomas Jones says the things that make GOP candidates wince.
"I'll be honest with you," said the soft-spoken co-owner of the general store that anchors this Caroline County village. "I don't know who's running. I haven't given it that much thought."
That's not the kind of primary election chatter that brings smiles to Robert P. Duckworth, Lisa G. Renshaw and Edward F. Taylor, the three Republican challengers to incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.
Despite their best attempts to kick up dust across the political landscape, the 1st District has hardly been disturbed, leaving voters such as Mr. Jones less than enthusiastic about the coming election.
Like many Maryland residents, Mr. Jones is surprised to learn that the state's primary election is set for March 3. It's an early date by traditional standards, but the General Assembly picked it after the last election to make Maryland more of a player in presidential politics.
"Didn't we just elect Gilchrest to Congress?" Mr. Jones asked, referring to the freshman Republican who won his first term just 15 months ago in a hotly contested race against Democrat incumbent Roy P. Dyson.
If Mr. Jones' grip on the 1st District congressional race is a bit loose, it's not because the 50-year-old storekeeper isn't concerned about politics or party.
He says there are plenty of reasons why the primary race for the party's congressional nomination hasn't set the large, mostly rural district on fire.
The economy's sour. Money's tight. It's the winter doldrums and people are going to bed early after work -- if they have a job. There's more to think about than who's running for what office.
The folks who come into his store care about politics, too, Mr. Jones insisted. But lots of them have stopped paying close attention because they don't see much difference between the candidates.
"People say they aren't impressed because they say it's going to be the same-old-same-old," he said.
For the incumbent, ennui may parlay into success at the polls. Mr. Jones said he's likely to vote for Mr. Gilchrest: "He's for the things I'm for."
And he admitted he doesn't know who's opposing Mr. Gilchrest, a 45-year-old former school teacher from Kent County.
The three other Republican candidates have been struggling against a pair of formidable obstacles -- the name recognition of an incumbent and a constituency that has yet to focus on the election.
Of Mr. Gilchrest's challengers, none has ever held elective office and all live in Anne Arundel County, across the bay and a world away from the Eastern Shore, which dominates the 1st District, geographically and politically.
The district was redrawn last year. In addition to the Eastern Shore and a chunk of Anne Arundel County that was previously in the 4th District, it includes a few precincts in South Baltimore.
With no money to speak of in the 1990 general election, Mr. Duckworth fared well with 40 percent of the vote in a 4th District race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Tom McMillen. Mr. McMillen is now running in the 1st District, too.
Mr. Duckworth, 51, describes himself as a "citizen representative" who opposes abortion, favors a cap on federal spending and wants "jobs, jobs, jobs" for the 1st District.
His campaign style is even-tempered. He avoids harsh words about Mr. Gilchrest and the other primary candidates, preferring instead to chastise Mr. McMillen and Congress in general, which he calls "a house of perks and a castle of privileges."
Taylor stresses trade
Mr. Taylor, a 47-year-old English teacher at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, once ran for a seat on the Anne Arundel County orphan's court.
He calls himself a moderate Republican who is liberal on some issues but insists that government should protect U.S. businesses against foreign competition.
"We can't sustain a socioeconomic Pearl Harbor," he said. "I don't want that to sound like left-handed Japan-bashing, but that's what it is," he added.
Mr. Taylor, who admitted that his campaign fund of $330 is unimpressive, said he plans to use radio and newspaper advertising to get his name before the voters during the
final few days before the primary.
Renshaw ruffles feathers
The primary's loudest noise has come from the youngest challenger, 30-year-old Lisa G. Renshaw of Severn.
A self-described Reagan and Bush Republican, Ms. Renshaw had planned to go after Mr. McMillen's 4th District congressional seat.
But when the district was redrawn, she turned her guerilla tactics on Mr. Gilchrest. The race hasn't been the same since.
With counsel from a small group of conservative GOP members, Ms. Renshaw has pored over Mr. Gilchrest's 1990 campaign statements as well as his voting record in Congress. She pounces on changes and discrepancies and lashes into Mr. Gilchrest with relish.