"People do have a view of him," Hutchinson said. "For those of us familiar with county government, he could not have been a better leader, could not have been a better county executive. But translating that to a congressional race? That's a task."
Venetoulis predicted that Ruppersberger will have the advantage in the city precincts in the district, Bentley will have an edge in Harford County, and the pair will slug it out in Anne Arundel, where neither is a known quantity, but that Ruppersberger needs to do well in Baltimore County.
Even if he mends his own fences, he'll face the same difficulty all Democrats in Baltimore County will this year: the popularity of Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Speculation among politicos isn't about whether Ehrlich will win the county, but whether he'll top 65 percent of the vote.
"The key ingredient in all of this is the Ehrlich factor," said Venetoulis, who is a Democrat. "It's a very strong plus that Republicans have in that county."
Bengur, however, said he doesn't see the results as being so dire for Ruppersberger. Bengur said he sees the race shaping up as a battle between the Republican and Democratic approaches to national issues, such as the economy, prescription drug coverage, Social Security and foreign policy.
The stakes in the race are larger than the fate of one district, Bengur said. Republicans have a slim majority in the House of Representatives. If they hold their advantage, they will retain power to shape the national agenda. If they don't, Democrats could gain the edge.
So, despite his misgivings about Ruppersberger, Bengur said he supports Ruppersberger.
"I always felt this was a critical year," Bengur said. "I think for working people in this country, the Democratic proposals are the right answer, and that means taking over Congress is even more essential."