The question looming over Maryland's far-flung western congressional district this election year is exactly who is running against two-term incumbent Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Frederick millionaire.
Unlike recent primaries, where candidates have been fodder for newspaper headlines, the party races this year have been quiet in the 6th District, a diverse area that makes up about one-quarter of Maryland, stretching from hilly Garrett County to the Baltimore and Washington exurbs.
"I have never seen such a low-profile election on both sides," said Carol Kawecki, an instructor in political science at Hood College in Frederick. "There's hardly been any public forums, and the ones that have been held have been poorly attended. There's few signs, [little] campaign literature and no bumper stickers -- and I really do look for them."
Two Republicans are challenging Mr. Bartlett in the primary Tuesday. They are Fredric M. Parker, a senior systems engineer at Westinghouse in Linthicum, and John J. Kubricky, a manager for a telecommunications system.
The apparent front-runner in the Democratic race is college Professor Stephen Crawford, 53, who lives in Frederick. The other candidates are Don Allensworth, a land use planner from Hagerstown, David P. Koontz, an advertising account executive from Frederick, and David L. Osmundson, a retired National Security Agency intelligence analyst from Sykesville.
"Nobody up here has ever heard of any of them," said John Sines, chairman of Garrett County's Republican State Central Committee. "People up here are worried about jobs, the economy and the cuts coming from the federal government. We haven't seen anybody up here campaigning."
It's a far cry from the 1994 primary, when Democratic candidates, in particular, garnered name recognition with well-publicized campaign strategies. Remember the Frederick Democrat who walked the district? Another entered the political fray with a bang, investing nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the campaign.
"It's a wide-open field this year," said Mr. Allensworth, 61, who ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1994.
Only a few candidates -- most of them Democrats -- have shown up at recent political forums in Frederick, Carroll and other counties. Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Crawford have largely been no-shows.
"There has been very little discussion of issues in the 6th District," said Michael Towle, assistant professor of government at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg. "It's so obvious Bartlett will win the Republican race. Crawford is obviously the front-runner among Democrats."
The issues in the 6th District mirror the concerns being raised in presidential primaries across the nation. They are jobs and wages, education, the budget deficit and health care.
"People are concerned about jobs, crime, education. People are concerned about the future," said Mr. Bartlett, who will turn 70 in June. "The input we get is support for balancing the budget. People no longer want to limit the opportunities for their children to [achieve] the American dream because of the stifling debt."
One way to balance the budget is to streamline government operations, suggested Mr. Parker, 35, an Ellicott City resident who has made several unsuccessful bids for office. "There's a lot fat throughout government," he said. "There's a lot of duplication of government services. We need to charge user fees. We need to identify areas that can be accomplished by the private sector."
Political ideologies aside, many of the candidates are seeking Mr. Bartlett's seat for similar reasons. Mr. Bartlett, from their perspective, is out of touch with his constituents and too closely aligned with House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Bartlett is a strange combination of slippery politician and ideologue," Mr. Crawford said. "Ninety-six percent of the time he has voted with Newt Gingrich. The most important thing is that he doesn't vote with the Maryland delegation. Vote after vote, it's always seven to one."
Mr. Bartlett, however, countered that he has voted exactly the way he promised in 1992. "I campaigned quite a while before there ever was a 'Contract with America,' " he said. "I have consistently voted for less government, less taxes and less regulations, safe streets and a strong military to make our country safe. Those are the things I campaigned on."
Mr. Koontz, 32, whose campaign represents those in the district who are working for social justice and peace, said many people he has talked to are concerned about the direction the country is taking with the GOP Congress.
"They're just too extreme. There's too much change. People are afraid," he said.
Mr. Bartlett has received harsh criticism from his opponents for the closing of the Bausch & Lomb plant in Garrett County. The plant's shutdown shocked the region, which is still recovering from the closing of manufacturing plants in the late 1980s.
"The Democratic Party has got to be the paycheck party," Mr. Osmundson, 55, said. "We need to create jobs. I believe we need community involvement. The recent B&L closing is of particular interest. We needed a congressman who would have been in there involved in saving that plant."
Mr. Kubricky, 48, of Ellicott City agreed, adding, "In a situation like that, if the state can't do anything, the district's congressman should get in there and find grants to keep the factory open."
Mr. Bartlett said he went to Oakland immediately after the plant's closing was known. Company officials, he said, were asked whether there was anything the state or local government could do to help keep the plant open, and the "answer was no."
"We're working very hard with them to market this facility," he said.