CHESTERTOWN -- In an increasingly bitter struggle for Maryland's 1st District congressional seat, the two leading candidates agree on this: Election Day can't come soon enough.
Mired in a rut of accusatory political ads, the campaigns of Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest and Democrat Tom McMillen appear unable to free themselves from the mud, at least not until voters go to the polls on Nov. 3.
"This is a helluva thing to put your family through, politics," muttered Mr. Gilchrest, a freshman congressman who lives on ** the Eastern Shore with his wife and three children.
"I'll be glad when this whole thing is over," conceded Mr. McMillen, a three-term congressman from Anne Arundel County who is fighting for his political life in the newly drawn 1st District.
And that was before things turned even uglier last week. Barbara Gilchrest accused the McMillen camp of hiring a detective agency to dig up dirt on her husband -- a charge Mr. McMillen immediately denied.
Although the separate campaigns moved along placidly through most of the summer, the mood turned sour when the first campaign ads hit the air waves in September.
From that time on, the race has been consumed in a rancorous exchange of blame and barb, with campaign issues getting short shrift.
Only write-in candidate Ralph Gies, a dark horse running on an anti-abortion platform, has been left out of the fray.
"Wayne started it," said Mr. McMillen, a former professional basketball star. "Anybody who watched me in the NBA knows if I'm punched, I punch back."
The first punch, according to Mr. McMillen, was thrown in a Gilchrest radio ad that lampooned his Democratic opponent for accepting free travel and lodging for speaking engagements across the country and abroad. Mr. McMillen called the ad unfair, claiming that his celebrity status as a former professional athlete makes him a speaker much in demand.
He fought back, accusing Mr. Gilchrest in a biting television ad of voting to slash Medicare benefits for the elderly.
Mr. Gilchrest, a former schoolteacher and house painter, reacted as though someone had put alum in his apple pie.
"This type of campaign creates stress, fear, anxiety among people who should not have to bear that," he said, denying the charge.
Just when his staff thought the Medicare issue was behind them, anew McMillen ad appeared featuring three well-known Eastern Shore officials, including state Sen. Frederick C. Malkus Jr., saying they've seldom heard from or seen Mr. Gilchrest since he took office two years ago.
That sent Gilchrest campaigners into their files, producing three letters the congressman sent to Mr. Malkus but which were never answered.
The effect of the McMillen ads has been to place Gilchrest workers on the defensive, a role they admit wastes precious time and money.
"I have to give it to them, they're good at this," said Tony Caligiuri, Mr. Gilchrest's campaign manager.
But while the Gilchrest campaign has been busy repairing damage from the McMillen shots, it has also stayed on the offensive.
A Gilchrest ad urged Eastern Shore voters to elect "one of us" to Congress, a rally to Shore residents to reject an outsider from the other side of the Chesapeake Bay in favor of the Republican congressman, who is married to a Crisfield native and who lives in Kent County.
Bankrolled with a 3-to-1 advantage in campaign funds, Mr. McMillen didn't hesitate to fire back. A McMillen TV ad suggested that Mr. Gilchrest, a New Jersey native, brought his home state's notoriety for dirty politics with him to the 1st District.
Despite the lack of attention the ads pay to substantial campaign issues, the two candidates have not shied away from discussing other matters in forums and debates.
On some issues they agree. Both favor abortion rights. Both support a waiting period for handgun purchases as well as a balanced-budget amendment. And both want to see campaign finance reforms.
But there are differences, too.
Mr. McMillen, who calls himself a "raging moderate," is one of a new breed of techno-Democrats known for their enthusiasm for high technology. From his perch on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, he successfully pushed legislation that will create five federal "telework" centers, including one on the Eastern Shore. The satellite work centers will be electronically linked to Washington-based offices, allowing federal workers to live in outlying areas and avoid daily trips to Washington.
At the same time, Mr. McMillen has a politician's affinity for taking credit where little is due, such as the preservation of land at Fort Meade and the continued operation of Baltimore's Curtis Bay Coast Guard yard. Both achievements were largely accomplished by others in the state congressional delegation.
For his part, Mr. Gilchrest has all but brushed aside any pork for his district, claiming that to vote for budget cuts and, at the same time, support spending on the home front is hypocritical.