ROCKVILLE - If Christopher Van Hollen Jr. wants to watch a creepy movie, he doesn't need to rent Night of the Living Dead - for him, the PBS documentary Taking on the Kennedys is a political horror film.
The film chronicles an accomplished physician's unsuccessful 1994 Rhode Island congressional race against a young Patrick Kennedy, with all of his family mystique and connections.
Van Hollen has seen the 1996 film and decided nevertheless to take on a Kennedy this year for the U.S. House of Representatives - Maryland's Mark Kennedy Shriver. Rarely lacking for confidence, Van Hollen, 43, can hardly imagine losing.
"It's not in the plan," he says, shaking his head as if the possibility of defeat - even to a well-financed member of a storied family - has not occurred to him.
Van Hollen's self-assurance is the norm in the Montgomery and Prince George's County district, where the three main combatants in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary are highly educated, driven men accustomed to success. None has lost an election before. A fourth Democrat, lawyer Deborah Vollmer, has not raised enough money to seriously compete.
The winner will face Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella in the fall.
While Shriver appears to be the front-runner and Van Hollen the closest rival, almost one in five likely voters remains undecided, according to a recent Sun poll.
The electorate's uncertainty - and the candidates' agreement on most issues - has heightened the importance of the candidates' style, from the tenor of their television ads, to how many hands they manage to shake.
The Sun spent time with each of the three as the campaign, one of the most expensive and closely watched in the nation, neared its final week.
Concern for mother
The voters keep asking Mark Shriver about his mother.
He stood at an entrance to a Metro stop in Bethesda last week during Friday morning's rush hour, shaking hands and distributing flyers detailing his stands on gun safety and early childhood education.
"I shouldn't say this in front of a reporter, but I've got all these position papers, and they keep asking about my mom," said a half-smiling Shriver. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, is recovering from a hip fracture.
Shriver knows, of course, that his Kennedy links are usually a boon. They increase his name identification, evoke images of his late uncle's glamorous "Camelot" period at the White House, and let him tap into a family fund-raising network.
Another uncle, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, helped introduce Shriver to about 30 labor officials last November at the Democratic Club in Washington.
But Shriver, 38, wants it known that he doesn't consider political ascendancy his birthright. As if to prove the point, he says he knocked on 25,000 doors in his first State House campaign in 1994. His TV ads in the congressional campaign don't employ the Kennedy name or even the initial "K."
"Even if you work hard, people will say that `He got there because of his middle or last name.' I don't stay up nights worrying about that," Shriver says.
Shriver majored in history at Holy Cross, where he played rugby and didn't run for student body president. Since graduating in 1986, he has worked as a telecommunications executive and started and ran Choice, a Baltimore program to help youths.
In Annapolis, Shriver is known as a scrapper - not the most vocal legislator, but one willing to push hard behind the scenes, particularly on his pet issue of ensuring that children are prepared to enter kindergarten.
In politics, Shriver is like a basketball coach's child who grew up with the sport and is adept at the fundamentals. "He just looks everyone right in the eye and deals with everyone - no matter who they are - like they are the president of the U.S.," said Joe Massaro, a longtime friend who lives in Pittsburgh.
Inevitably, there are times when candidates quietly question their sanity for undertaking an arduous campaign.
Ira Shapiro has probably come closest to such moments during his countless hours standing beside busy intersections holding up a self-promotional sign.
Shapiro's campaign borrowed the idea from an old Burma Shave advertising pitch in which a message was strung together by a series of words on successive billboards.
Shapiro, a former Clinton administration trade negotiator, decided to employ the gimmick to lighten up the campaign - and get some needed publicity in a race in which he is a clear underdog.
"Our media consultant, Peter Fenn, created it," Shapiro says. "He thought perhaps it would show kind of an unconventional style, since I was known as a policy guy. The first time he suggested it, it kind of just lay on the table like a fish. But it's worked."
It is a testament to Shapiro's reputation that he can get away with such a technique without being called a lightweight.