HUGHESVILLE -- They are a cramped semi-circle of Democrats and Republicans, all running for the 5th District House seat -- and all running against Congress.
Congress is in attendance: Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer.
The 10-year House veteran has been drawn into this newly redrawn district, uncharted political waters that now stretch from his home turf of Prince George's County into Anne Arundel County and down through the three counties of Southern Maryland, including this Charles County hamlet.
"You can elect a career politician," Republican candidate Michael Swetnam tells the several dozen voters, with a sweep of his hand toward Mr. Hoyer.
GOP candidate Gerald Schuster fixes a gaze on Mr. Hoyer and suggests he stay in Congress only through March, to help pass President Bush's economic proposals.
Democratic candidate Ricardo Johnson says he wants to "cut congressional prerogatives."
Lawrence Hogan Jr., still another GOP candidate, asked Mr. Hoyer point-blank whether he ran out on restaurant tabs or bounced checks, referring to the twin scandals that rocked the House last year. The audience stirs. Muffled groans mingle with scattered applause.
Mr. Hoyer bounds to the podium. One hand slides to quickly button his dark suit.
"I'm sure [that] any day Mr. Hogan will start talking about the serious issues," the congressman says icily.
The 52-year-old lawmaker makes the practiced eye-contact with these Southern Maryland voters.
He glides through statistics, bill names and buzz words.
His voice rises, then falls to a hush, as he attacks the Reagan-Bush tax cuts, pushes for universal health care and replies to the charges.
"On bank checks, the answer's no," he says. "On restaurant checks, the answer's no."
The new 5th District -- the product of the once-a-decade congressional redistricting by the state legislature last fall -- left Hoyer with 55 percent new turf. Nearly all of it was requested by the congressman and backed by his Democratic allies in Annapolis. Mr. Hoyer says he practiced law in the area, knows its officials and represented many of its residents as a state senator.
But the GOP says this is prime conservative turf and a golden opportunity to defeat Mr. Hoyer, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. It is hostile territory, they argue, for a pro-abortion rights lawmaker who voted against a constitutional amendment to protect the flag and against sending U.S. troops to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
President Bush carried the area with 57 percent of the vote in 1988. The same year Alan Keyes, the conservative GOP candidate who lost to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, came within 26 votes of capturing Calvert County.
The GOP is pinning its hopes on Mr. Hogan, a 35-year-old Upper Marlboro real estate broker and son of the last Republican congressman from the 5th District. Mr. Hogan, who has never held public office, lost the Republican nomination in the 1981 special election that sent Mr. Hoyer to Congress.
The congressman has "lost touch" with voters, says Mr. Hogan, painting his opponent as a "liberal extremist" who is soft on crime and defense, as well as one of the "biggest spenders" in Congress who opposes a balanced budget amendment.
But Democrats still outnumber Republicans 2-1 in the new district. And Mr. Hoyer has lined up strong support among Democratic leaders, from club presidents to Southern Maryland's favorite son -- State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, a Calvert County resident.
Democrats and other political observers say Mr. Hoyer's name recognition, campaign account ($470,382 compared with Mr. Hogan's $3,313) and ability to lavish the district with federal money will catapult him to victory in these new environs.
Even before a single vote has been cast, the congressman has used his clout to get two defense contracts for the district. He freed $10.7 million in frozen federal money to build an explosives facility at the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, the largest employer in Charles County. And he pushed through a $4.5 million design study for a new airplane test facility at Patuxent Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County.
Republicans call those projects "pork." But the congressman and Democrats call them "jobs" and say they will be the centerpiece of his race.
"I'm going to try to sell the people of Southern Maryland: Steny Hoyer is a good advocate. He is a good lawyer to hire to protect your interests," the congressman said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
"He's doing things, and he hasn't been elected," said Charles Stine, a Democratic activist in Charles County. "He's going to do a lot to help us down here."
"He's been in Congress a long, long time," adds Sal Raspa, chairman of the Democratic Central Committee in St. Mary's County. "I think people look at the experience."