Comfortably ensconced after eight years in Congress, Rep. Albert R. Wynn ought to be finding it easy going as he makes his way through the church-and-community-meeting circuit of his latest campaign.
He's an established, well-financed Democrat who commands considerable respect in the heavily Democratic suburbs of Washington. His opponent, John B. Kimble, is an unconventional Republican perhaps best known for a past attempt to generate publicity by offering to pose for Playgirl magazine.
But Kimble has enlisted a most unlikely ally, someone who claims to know all of the congressman's dirty laundry and doesn't mind sharing it - his estranged wife.
Ever since Jessie Wynn signed on as Kimble's campaign chairwoman and began airing her marital grievances in telephone and Web site messages, Maryland's 4th District race has achieved national notoriety as having all the subtlety of a Jerry Springer television show.
"It's an unusual, uncomfortable situation," the congressman acknowledged Wednesday, leaving a Southern Maryland courthouse where he and his wife had fought for hours over their 6-year-old daughter, who is at the center of a bitter divorce battle.
How uncomfortable? First came a recorded phone message from his wife, who like Wynn is black, that was sent to thousands of homes in the district of largely black, affluent neighborhoods in Prince George's and eastern Montgomery counties.
"Hi, this is Jessie Wynn," she said. "Albert Wynn does not respect black women. He left me for a white woman. Please send your donations to Kimble for Congress."
The embarrassment didn't end there. When the congressman held a crab feast, his soon-to-be ex-wife stood outside with Kimble, holding a banner proclaiming the same startling message.
She posted more this month on Kimble's Web site. "Let's talk about Nov. 19, 1998," says one entry. "Three weeks after he won the election, [Wynn] hired a moving company that came in the house and took all of our furniture out of the house, even the bed we slept in. Please make the switches I have."
Though all the accusations have created a sensation amid Maryland's otherwise sedate congressional races, political observers predict it will have little, if any, influence on the outcome.
Wynn, 49, a lawyer who served for a decade as a state legislator, claimed his congressional seat after a hard-fought campaign in 1992 when Maryland created its second predominantly black district.
Since then, he has cruised almost effortlessly to three successive re-elections. Kimble, his Republican opponent in the past two elections, has never managed to muster more than 15 percent of the vote.
"This is certainly the most personally upsetting, bizarre campaign that anyone can recall around here," says Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based political pollster. "But Al Wynn is practically invincible. It just creates a tense atmosphere."
In the face of this harshly personal campaign - and his third marital breakup - Wynn has tried to keep his dignity intact. He tells reporters that he has nothing negative to say about his wife. He ignores his opponent. On Monday, Wynn skipped taping a debate on Maryland Public Television, saying Kimble had ignored the rules in a previous encounter and had leveled inflammatory attacks against him.
He prefers to focus on Democratic campaign themes - such as education and the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. His campaign, he says, is "getting very positive feedback. I feel very good about where we are."
Wynn lists his accomplishments: promoting small and minority businesses, fighting for $1.5 billion to build a new Wilson Bridge, leading an effort to strengthen equal opportunity protections. Those are issues, he says, that are important to his district with its large number of federal workers and businesses that depend on government contracts.
Making some of the same points in a recent letter to The Sun, Wynn concluded: "I may not be a show horse, but I do try to be a workhorse. ... I have not sought the national spotlight, but I believe that if I work hard enough, it will find me - and if not, so be it."
Now, however, it's not Wynn's congressional work but his wife's campaign activity that is bringing him national attention. Jessie Wynn's blistering sound bite played on the "Today" show in early September, and Kimble will appear on a show this week on Comedy Central.
Jessie Wynn is unapologetic. She says she joined Kimble's campaign "not out of anger" but because "he cares about people, he cares about women's issues, people being homeless. He's very sincere."
Kimble is pressing ahead with his "in-your-face" campaign that he calls his only chance.
Kimble, 40, who lives with eight dogs and six cats and calls himself an animal-behavior consultant, shares few Republican Party views. Local and state GOP leaders have distanced themselves.