The look that comes over Gerry L. Brewster's face at the mention of Ross Perot bespeaks the uncertainty of a politician coming to grips with a phenomenon.
"He could be the best manipulator of all time, I just don't know," the Baltimore County delegate says.
Democrat or Republican, incumbent or challenger -- admit it or not -- politicians in Maryland this summer operate in the shadow of a Texas billionaire who wants to replace "none of the above" in the collective mind of America.
Mr. Brewster feels the heat, and he's not even up for re-election.
"If the election were held in my district today," says Mr. Brewster, a Democrat, "Ross Perot would win."
So how can he stand clear of the Perot bandwagon?
The question matters for an aspiring public servant such as Mr. Brewster who serves a county bristling with anti-government, anti-tax and anti-incumbent sentiment. Just to show his bona fides as a pro-change incumbent, just to show he sympathizes with the angry and the frustrated, Mr. Brewster signed a petition to get Mr. Perot on the ballot in Maryland.
"I want him to have a chance," he says of the man who, he thinks, might turn out to be a manipulator and a demagogue. "He deserves a chance, and the American people want him to have a chance. I think he'll make it a better race with a better airing of the issues. The press will find out if he's a phony."
It's also possible, he says, that Mr. Perot will turn out to be a leader. If he does, Mr. Brewster can say he gave the man a chance.
The dilemma is more intense for those who are running this year.
If he stays the course, Mr. Perot will shred what remains of political coattails -- the power of strong presidential candidates to pull others into office behind them, according to Brad Coker, president of Mason Dixon Opinion Research, a polling firm in Columbia. With the presidential vote divided by three candidates, the value of being aligned with any one of them on a ticket could be greatly reduced, he says.
Nevertheless, local candidates are happy to acknowledge Mr. Perot's popularity and to talk about how their own candidacies also are dedicated to change.
"We believe anything that brings new people into the political process is a positive development. The sentiments currently pushing the Perot campaign can't help but be of benefit to someone challenging an entrenched incumbent like Barbara Mikulski," says Sean Paige, a spokesman for the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Alan L. Keyes.
"Campaigns all over the country will benefit from Perot's presence," says Ron Gunzberger, campaign manager for Republican Larry Hogan, a congressional candidate in the state's 5th District. "Candidates like Larry stand to pick up the trickle-down effect of Perot."
Mr. Hogan's opponent, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, might seem a prime example of the vulnerable incumbent: an inside player in the House Democratic hierarchy, a policy-maker and someone who could be accused in a political campaign of creating governmental gridlock in Washington.
But Mr. Hoyer sees the dynamic working for him. Mr. Perot is a lightning rod for discontent, he reasons. People can satisfy their thirst for revenge at the highest level and then stay with a congressional incumbent who brings home the bacon.
The theme is heard in the 6th District as well.
Del. Thomas H. Hattery, who won the Democratic primary there to unseat Rep. Beverly B. Byron, finds much to like in the independ
ent candidate. "Ross Perot is tapping into the people who are frustrated and disgusted with what's going on and want to change business as usual in Washington. That's what I want to do," he says.
Mr. Hattery recently attended a fund-raiser for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, but he is not tying himself too tightly to his party's presidential candidate.
"My first job is to represent the people of this district, and that's what I intend to do," he says. "Clinton's not taking my message. I'm not taking his."
Mr. Hattery's opponent, Republican Roscoe Bartlett, says he expects to win 85 percent of the Perot support in the 6th District. "We do not represent government as usual in Washington," he says. "Our opponent does. He's a career politician. He's a clone of Bill Clinton. Tom told his third-grade classmates he wanted to be a career politician."
Though he generally disapproves of career politicians, Mr. Bartlett said that he is a strong supporter of President Bush. And Mr. Bartlett predicts that as Perot supporters learn more about their man, they will drift back to the regular party nominees.
In the meantime, they praise the nation's currently reigning agent for change, look for ways to prosper in the political environment he shapes and hope that they won't be caught out of position.