UPPER MARLBORO -- If a congressman works really hard and brings home lots of bacon, is that enough these days to overcome voter contempt for Washington and the feeling that government spends too much?
If a lawmaker has a voting record that seems too liberal for many people in his district, can he still win forgiveness by always being around to help with their problems?
The political maxim that people hate Congress but love their own doting congressman is being severely tested across the nation this fall, but probably nowhere more than here, where Rep. Steny H. Hoyer is relentlessly wooing the hearts and votes of Southern Marylanders.
In the space of just four hours last week, the seven-term Democrat cut ribbons on $28 billion worth of Hoyer-sponsored largess: a $12 million laboratory for the Agricultural Research Service -- the first building added to the Beltsville complex in 22 years -- and a $15 million National Wildlife Visitor Center at the Patuxent Environmental Science Center in Laurel. The 20,000-acre wildlife breeding area was expanded at Mr. Hoyer's urging to include 8,000 acres of forest that former President Ronald Reagan wanted to bulldoze for private development.
Between the two events, the congressman stopped at a trade fair, where Prince George's County police officials boasted about the success of an anti-gang program for teen-agers financed with grant money Mr. Hoyer tucked into the budget. The congressman was escorted through the fair by Wallace O. Stephens, a Republican businessman and president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, who said he ignored appeals for help from Mr. Hoyer's GOP opponent.
"Steny is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and that means something to me personally," Mr. Stephens said.
Meanwhile, television and radio ads were beaming into the four other counties of the 5th Congressional District -- Calvert, Charles, Anne Arundel and St. Mary's -- noting Mr. Hoyer's successful efforts to spare naval facilities from closing and to finance cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
Facing a low-octane challenge from Donald J. Devine, a former Reagan personnel director whose tenure was so controversial Mr. Devine couldn't win confirmation to a second term from a Republican-controlled Senate, Mr. Hoyer observed: "You'd think there wouldn't be any contest, wouldn't you?"
But he can't afford to take any chances. Mr. Hoyer narrowly escaped defeat two years ago in a newly drawn district packed with unfamiliar and unfriendly turf. As the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House at a time when President Clinton and most other party leaders are under siege, the congressman makes a prime target for Republicans who hope sniper fire from Mr. Devine will be enough to give Mr. Hoyer a final push out the door.
"Steny Hoyer is a decent enough person, except that he is a captive of 1960s solutions, and as part of the Democratic leadership, he must vote to support President Clinton's equally outmoded ideas," Mr. Devine said in announcing his candidacy in June. "We should start term limits by giving him a fine retirement. He has just been around too long and needs some time in the private sector to understand the problems the rest of us face."
The challenger has focused on the four counties that make up the newest parts of Mr. Hoyer's district -- all of which the congressman lost in the 1992 election to his Republican opponent, Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. Though mostly Democrats, voters there tend to be more conservative than those in Mr. Hoyer's boyhood home of Prince George's County.
In press releases and ads, the Republican challenger pushes the buttons considered likely to reach what in President Reagan's day was called a boll weevil audience. The incumbent, Mr. Devine says, is soft on crime, weak on defense and favors gun control and gays in the military.
The first two assertions are open to debate. Mr. Hoyer was a chief sponsor of the "three-time loser" mandatory-sentencing provision in the crime bill enacted this year. But he also made an appeal for leniency at the sentencing of a family friend with two prior drug offenses who had been convicted of armed robbery. On defense, the congressman has been more hawkish than most Democrats long before it was fashionable. But he also voted against the U.S. assault on Iraqi forces that drove them from Kuwait in 1991.
On gun control and gay tolerance, Mr. Devine's assertions are pretty much on target.
"He comes down here, and he talks like he's one of us, but he goes back to Washington and votes like an ultra-liberal," said state Sen. James C. Simpson, a Charles County Democrat.
Probably most hurtful to Mr. Hoyer is the challenger's use of the congressman's own heated words on the House floor proclaiming himself a "tax-tax, spend-spend Democrat."