The $64 question for Stephen N. Abrams is whether experience in elective office and superior name recognition can propel him to the GOP nomination for comptroller over two actively campaigning Republican rivals.
More precisely, it's a $64.57 question - because that's the amount of cash he reported on hand this month for his quest to be the Republican "insurance policy" in case incumbent Comptroller William Donald Schaefer is defeated in the Democratic primary.
Abrams, 63, is counting on his more than 30 years of working in the GOP trenches and strong support in Montgomery County to carry him to victory over businessman Mark M. Spradley and former University of Baltimore business school dean Anne M. McCarthy in the low-budget, little-noticed Republican comptroller contest. Gene Zarwell, who snagged the GOP nomination in 2002, is also on the ballot.
While Abrams may be low on funds, he has an abundance of confidence.
"At least you don't have to worry about me not having enough ego to run a campaign," said Abrams, who has repeatedly won nonpartisan elections in heavily Democratic Montgomery despite his well-known GOP loyalties.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had publicly discouraged Republicans from running against Schaefer, who has repeatedly crossed party lines to back the governor on the Board of Public Works.
But late last year, Abrams decided the Republican Party needed someone in position to step up if Democratic Del. Peter Franchot's seemingly quixotic challenge to Schaefer gathered momentum. With Schaefer's poll numbers in the Democratic primary hovering in the low 30s and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens now in the race, Abrams' move increasing appears prescient.
"I'm a strategic politician. I believe it's important to have viable candidates up for every office where there may be an opportunity for a qualified competent candidate," Abrams said. "My own sense is that Schaefer is much more vulnerable in a Democratic primary than he is in the general election."
If Schaefer is nominated, he can probably expect more of a coronation than a competition. Abrams is an unabashed admirer of the comptroller - both personally and politically. He said he wouldn't take his name off the ballot if Schaefer wins, but he wouldn't put much effort into raising money for what he would consider a "Don Quixote-ish" effort.
"I would certainly not run the kind of campaign against Schaefer that I would if I was dealing with an open seat," he said.
If Franchot or Owens were to win the Democratic nomination, Abrams believes he could raise a lot of money in a short time and mobilize the full resources of the Republican Party. And he believes he could win - seizing an office the GOP hasn't won since 1898.
"Against either of the two, I believe I bring strengths they don't have," he said.
One of those strengths, he said, is his sense of humor.
"I have a rapier-like wit, and I'm willing to use it both for entertainment and to make a point," he said.
Fellow Montgomery school board member Sharon Cox said Abrams is difficult to pigeonhole along ideological lines.
"He is a very confident person, and he is unafraid to argue his position vociferously," she said. "He listens and he tells you whether he agrees or disagrees, and it's never personal."
Abrams describes himself as an "entrepreneurial capitalist" who has raised money to launch startup biotech firms. Besides running a family development business and serving in federal agencies, he has won five terms on the Rockville City Council and three on the Montgomery County Board of Education.
A confrontation arising out of his school board service has been gaining him far more news media attention than his comptroller campaign in recent months.
Last month, Abrams sued the state elections board to keep Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez off the Democratic ballot for attorney general, contending that Perez failed to meet constitutional requirements to hold the position. The two officials had wrangled over what Abrams saw as an illegal attempt by the council to force the school board to buy cut-rate pharmaceuticals from Canada.
Some of Abrams' critics contend that his self-financed legal effort to keep Perez off the ballot - turned down by a judge and due to be argued on appeal today - is a grudge-driven vendetta. Abrams says he's making a stand on legal principle. Whatever his motivation, Abrams has been getting far more news coverage than the other Republicans in his primary race.
Running in a state where George W. Bush's poll numbers have been dismal, Abrams is an enthusiastic supporter of the president and believes the administration's Iraq policies will be vindicated by history. He describes himself as "unabashedly pro-Israel," and one of his former jobs was as a top Capitol Hill lobbyist for that country.
On social issues such as abortion, he describes himself as "ambivalent" and contends they have little bearing on the comptroller's race.