With Democrats and Republicans constantly competing for power and influence, more and more voters are choosing neither affiliation, with about 32,000 independents among Howard County's 176,000 registered voters.
But don't look for a strong third party to emerge as a voting alternative, said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Norris pointed out that since World War II, only a few independent leaders have had any political success, among them Alabama segregationist George Wallace, reformer John Anderson and fiscal conservative Ross Perot.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy as the Green Party's choice in 2000 collected few votes -- but just enough, some say, to cost former Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, the election.
"I think Ralph Nader just went out there to salve his own ego," Norris said.
Independent voters might not want to be branded Republican or Democrat, but that does not mean they would support a third party, Norris said.
"What they're saying is, I'm an independent -- I vote my mind, not a party," he said. "The Green Party is perceived widely as being the home of the really left loonies."
Mike Cornell of River Hill, Maryland's Green Party chairman, takes issue with that view.
"Our core values are really in line with the vast majority of the American public," he said.
Those include responsible government, social justice, universal health insurance and environmentalism, which the party defines broadly to mean things such as managed growth.
"The real discussion isn't happening," Cornell said. "We need to be talking about health care coverage for all the people, including the children and Social Security."
Instead, mainstream party candidates "are trying to be politically safe," he said, by ignoring crucial, though divisive, issues.
"If we look at what the term `liberal' means -- the definition is that government spending and programs are the solution," Cornell said.
"Using that definition, the Democrats and Republicans are both liberal," he said, referring to the record federal deficit under President Bush.
The Greens, who number about 450 registered voters in Howard, have candidates running for governor and U.S. Senate. Green candidate Brandy C. Baker is running for the House of Representatives in the 7th Congressional District, which covers much of the western county and Ellicott City.
The party has no candidates for county or local state office.
But it does have views on local problems, said Cornell, 47, a business consultant and father of two teenagers who moved to Columbia 25 years ago.
He is critical of the downtown Columbia redevelopment process, feeling that it favors developers and high-end housing too heavily, while not doing enough for low-income families or to revitalize older village centers.
"There's a reason why Columbia attracts people like me -- the vision, the community," he said.
David A. Rakes officially resigned Friday, ending his service on the Howard County Council.
Rakes, 69, had said earlier that he was resigning for health reasons, mentioning an arthritic hip.
Let's face it, political fundraising can be a drag.
All candidates say it is the part of politics that they hate most, and those standard events with people standing around, drinks and hors d'oeuvres in hand with name tags clinging to clothing, can be a bore.
Some are trying to break the mold.
Greg Fox, a Republican running for County Council in the western county's District 5, had a March Madness theme in an afternoon event March 26 at the Circle D Farm in Glenwood. For $35 each, supporters could watch the college basketball games while a magician and a balloon artist entertained the children. The take was about $5,000, he said.
"I like to do family functions," Fox said, adding he plans another event for Cinco de Mayo. Fox is competing against county Police Chief Wayne Livesay in the GOP primary.
Don Dunn, a Democrat running for the seat, said he is planning an Irish tea and play, complete with folk dancing, June 24 at the Howard County Conservancy on Route 99. That follows a joint event April 17 at the Glenwood library for Dunn and two Democratic legislative candidates in District 9A -- Dave Osmundson, who running for the House of Delegates, and state Senate hopeful Richard Corkran. Osmundson and Corkran face stiff odds in opposing incumbent Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman and GOP Dels. Gail H. Bates or Warren E. Miller.
Tony Salazar, a Republican candidate for County Council running for the Ellicott City-Elkridge District 1 seat, had a St. Patrick's Day house party and plans coffees and ice cream socials for about $35 a ticket.
"It's about getting to know the constituents and having an opportunity to listen to them," he said.
Courtney Watson, Salazar's Democratic opponent, recently offered her supporters the chance to boost her kitty and have dinner at Jordan's Steak House on Main Street in Ellicott City for $100 each.
"It's not a bad deal since you generally have to pay that when you go to Jordan's anyway," Watson said. "We had trouble getting people out of there. They had a good time."
Her crowd filled the second floor to overflowing. The fundraiser followed a "ladies lunch" in January at Elkridge Furnace Inn.
County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican county executive candidate, and County Councilman Ken Ulman, a Democrat running for executive, have been relying mainly on house parties and coffees to raise money, staying away from the traditional catering hall events such as the one County Executive James N. Robey held recently at Turf Valley for his state Senate campaign.