DECISION TIME may be nearing for the county executives some refer to as "The Three Amigos."
Will they set their gargantuan egos aside long enough to take up a common cause?
Or will they continue to haggle over which one is better suited to run for governor against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend?
All of the amigos - Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan and Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry - are taking in the sand and sun at Ocean City this week during the big Maryland Association of Counties gathering there.
Talk is cheap, but there's likely to be plenty of it among the three county executives. But will they lock themselves in a room and hammer out a deal?
Don't bet on it. None of them thinks of himself as second-best, much less third-best.
Yet unless this threesome marches arm-in-arm into next year's election, there's little chance of beating Ms. Townsend. Individually, they'd be wasting their backers' money running for governor.
Mr. Duncan's trouble is that he's a foreigner to voters in the Baltimore region, from a faraway, rich principality with little in common with Essex, Edgewood, Glen Burnie and Arbutus.
Mr. Curry also is a stranger in the Baltimore 'burbs, and almost as much of a mystery to his fellow African-Americans in the city.
As for Mr. Ruppersberger, his name-recognition in the D.C. suburbs is virtually nil. It would take millions of TV ad dollars just to lift his visibility in that region.
This is one case where the whole would be far greater than the sum of its parts.
Where each amigo is dreadfully weak in match-ups against Ms. Townsend, they would present a formidable challenge as a ticket.
What's driving the three in this direction is a strongly held belief that their executive skills are light years ahead of Ms. Townsend's. She's just not up to running state government, they have concluded. But, after seven years of managing the state's largest county governments, they are.
Yet so far, none of the three has been willing to step forward and declare, "For the good of the state, I'll set my ambitions aside and run for lieutenant governor."
Not Mr. Ruppersberger. He wants the top position because he's too independent to accept a secondary post under a hard-charging governor.
Not Mr. Duncan. He feels he is ill-suited to be anyone's No. 2 because "I like to run things."
And not Mr. Curry, who believes he can pull together the same liberal-black coalition that helped Parris Glendening become governor.
One possibility is an agreement for Mr. Curry to run for attorney general against incumbent J. Joseph Curran, who some feel has been in that job too long (15 years). There's speculation this has been Mr. Curry's objective all along.
Yet the deal falls apart unless one of the remaining two agrees to play a secondary role on the ticket.
It would be a formidable team, with strengths in metropolitan Baltimore and especially in the populous Washington suburbs. This ticket would scream "experienced managers," versus Ms. Townsend's largely untested skills as an administrator and executive.
At the moment, that three-way ticket remains a pipe dream. But potent forces in the Baltimore-Washington business communities are encouraging a unity approach. The oft-expressed fear is that Ms. Townsend's dearth of hands-on executive experience could prove disastrous as governor.
In contrast, business leaders have been impressed by the classy skills displayed over the past seven years by the Three Amigos.
Mr. Curry gets high marks for digging Prince George's out of a $150 million hole inherited from Mr. Glendening and revamping sweetheart labor deals hatched by County Executive Glendening in his quest for union support in the 1994 governor's race.
Mr. Duncan steered Montgomery out of a recession-induced budget deficit by slashing staff and programs, then took bold moves to bolster school construction and economic development.
Mr. Ruppersberger, despite his recent stumble over a bungled east-side redevelopment plan, has proved an effective consensus-seeker, emphasizing school renovations, new recreation fields and fixing up older communities.
Two of them are term-limited. Only Mr. Duncan could run again for county executive. All three love public service, but as chief executives, not second bananas.
Perhaps the Three Amigos will take a long fishing trip together while in Ocean City, or sit down in a quiet room to crack crabs and thrash out the realities of their predicaments.
Never was it truer that united they have a chance to stand (and possibly win), but divided they will surely fall short in seeking the governor's office next year.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.