CRISFIELD -- The J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake is generally ranked as one of the top see-and-be-seen events of Maryland politics, and the jockeying for next year's election has already made this one of the state's hottest political years in memory.
This year's Tawes delivered on the heat -- set on a marina parking lot on the far lower Eastern Shore, sweat stains were high fashion and shade at a premium -- but the politics were curiously subdued. Mayor Martin O'Malley showed up yesterday, but neither of the other likely gubernatorial candidates did, and none of the contenders for the state's soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat made the trek to Crisfield.
Stalwarts insisted Tawes is still the Super Bowl of Maryland politics. But to Jim Buckley and Fred Zink, a pair of auto mechanics sitting amid a pile of mangled crab carcasses, the politicking was blissfully tame.
"You come here for a good time, fun, good people, all the good seafood and good-looking women," Buckley said. "Usually you're overrun with the politics here, but I haven't seen that."
"Usually they're walking around and shaking hands and handing out stuff," Zink said.
"It's probably too hot for 'em," Buckley said. "They're probably standing in their air-conditioned offices."
(Illustrating another problem for political schmoozers, Zink and Buckley, like many others at the feast, are from Delaware.)
O'Malley rolled into town about 1:45 p.m., stopped by the side of the road to change out of a tie into a black polo shirt and started working the crowd, shaking hands first in the general admittance area and later among the corporate tents filled with party and union activists.
"I'm here laying the groundwork for a race for governor, and meeting people and seeing friends and making sure friends know I need their help," O'Malley said.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was at a conference of the National Association of Counties in Hawaii yesterday. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was unable to attend because of President Bush's visit to the port of Baltimore yesterday morning, said his spokesman, Henry Fawell.
"I saw the president today, too," O'Malley said.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele handled yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting in Ehrlich's stead, so he didn't come, despite his all-but-certain candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Congress was in session, so Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat running for Senate, didn't come. Democratic Senate candidate Kweisi Mfume, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, wasn't at Tawes, either.
The lack of big names didn't dim the ardor of Tawes fans. Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, a Tawes regular, said that even if the big names weren't there, politics was still in the air.
"It is six hours of political schmoozing," Bereano said. "Everyone is talking politics. Everyone is handicapping the various political races, and you don't get that concentration of interest with the heat and the crabs and the beer anywhere else."
The politicians who were there generally fit into two categories: up-and-comers and people just soaking up the scene.
Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat who is running for the U.S. House seat Cardin is leaving, said Tawes is a good chance in the midsummer, when people are usually scattered about on vacations, to see people interested in politics. And for someone running for higher office, he said, it's good to be seen -- especially when your opponents aren't there.
"You see anyone else here from the 3rd District?" he said. "There you go. I'm everywhere."
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said he used to come to Tawes religiously when he was lieutenant governor two decades ago, but until yesterday, he hadn't been back in several years. He said he doesn't see Tawes as a must-attend political event so much as a chance to have some crabs and catch up with old friends.
"It's a chance to see some elected officials from the Shore I've known over the years, some people who used to be in office," Curran said. "It's a long way to come, but it's worth it."
Sharon Cooper, a state employee from Salisbury, got what she came for, too. An O'Malley sticker affixed to her shirt, she and her daughter, Jessica, sidled into the Democratic Party's tent and stood politely watching the mayor talk to politicians from the Eastern Shore until a campaign aide encouraged them to introduce themselves. Within a few seconds, O'Malley was telling them how much he needs their help and explaining how they could sign up to be campaign volunteers on his Web site.
"He seemed nice," Sharon Cooper said.
Fans of Duncan had to content themselves with the county executive's son and some campaign volunteers and staffers. Ehrlich devotees got some Cabinet officials and a team of young men in "Team Ehrlich" T-shirts with "We love our gov" printed on the back.
But Len Foxwell, a lobbyist for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, a man proud of his attendance streak of 12 consecutive crab feasts, said no one should have to put up with second-stringers next year.
"Come here next year, and it's going to feel like a World Series game," he said. "Anybody who aspires to statewide politics should circle the third Wednesday in July on their calendars next year. Failure to attend will not be an option."