WITH CONGRESS almost evenly divided between the parties, the battle for control of the House has been the most common theme running through congressional campaigns in Maryland.
Two of the most competitive House races in the country are being waged here, and Maryland voters could potentially tip the balance. Democratic mapmakers in Annapolis contorted the congressional district lines this year in hopes of ousting two of the four Republicans from the state's eight-member House delegation.
District 2: This largely Baltimore County district represented for eight years by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., now the GOP gubernatorial nominee, was sheared of many of its most conservative Republican voters to boost the prospects of C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Democratic county executive. The gerrymandering so enraged former Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley that she decided to make a comeback challenge to Mr. Ruppersberger.
A longtime Sun reporter who also chaired the Federal Maritime Commission, Ms. Bentley remains formidable at 78, and might be a sentimental favorite for some. But Mr. Ruppersberger, 56, is the best candidate for the district at this time.
He's earned high marks as a prudent and innovative manager of Baltimore County who well understands where federal help can be particularly useful in such critical areas as transportation and economic development. He's also demonstrated greater sensitivity to environmental concerns than Ms. Bentley, who has always put the interests of the Baltimore port first.
During the campaign, the county executive has been repeatedly tarred for his attempt to condemn property in blighted areas so they could be redeveloped. He acknowledges that his political handling of that matter and some others during his tenure was clumsy at best, but his vision was correct and his intentions were good.
District 8: In this predominantly Montgomery County district, state Sen. Chris Van Hollen, 43, beat out two other highly qualified primary contenders for the right to face the GOP incumbent, and since then has sounded the one-note theme of advancing Democratic control of the House.
But that is not a good enough reason to turn out eight-term Rep. Constance A. Morella. A liberal Republican, Ms. Morella, 71, boasts a voting record that reflects her district and a reputation for constituent service that has made her very popular. Over three decades in politics, she has been a pioneer on women's issues and a leading voice on federal worker concerns. Her membership in a small but pivotal band of GOP moderates is more valuable to her district and the country as a whole than the services of a freshman Democrat -- even one as accomplished as Mr. Van Hollen.
District 6: The massive precinct-juggling made this already conservative Western Maryland district even more so with the addition of Republicans in north Harford and Baltimore counties. That makes it a worse fit for Democrat Donald M. DeArmon, 47, a longtime congressional aide with liberal views who has made two previous failed bids for the seat.
Meanwhile, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, 76, a Republican who came to Congress 10 years ago as a political neophyte, seems to be finally growing into the job. A fiscal conservative, Mr. Bartlett was long resistant to pork barrel spending -- an admirable notion, but one that left his district without a champion when the goodies were handed out. He's come to conclude, he says, that if the money is going to be spent anyway, his constituents should get their fair share.
District 3: The district now stretches from Reisterstown to Annapolis, hopscotching through Baltimore and Howard County on its way to Anne Arundel County. Republican Scott Conwell of Crofton is hoping to take advantage of the new, more conservative voter mix. But the 38-year-old lawyer is no match for the incumbent, eight-term Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.
A former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Mr. Cardin, 59, is a national leader on health care and fiscal issues and one of the few House Democrats who has been able to work with the Republican majority to pass legislation. He is a chief author of a section of last year's tax cut bill that increased incentives for retirement savings.
District 1: The district spanning the Eastern Shore lost Annapolis and picked up more conservative precincts in Harford and Baltimore counties. But Republicans rallied in the primary to back Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest against a challenger from the right. He now faces Democrat Ann D. Tamlyn, 78, who says his relatively moderate record doesn't excuse his general support for President Bush's policies. But a more reliable Democratic vote is not worth giving up the niche Mr. Gilchrest has carved out over six terms as one of the most effective environmental advocates of either party.