Nearly two decades ago, attorney Albert R. Wynn hired a law school student as his clerk for a summer.
The aide, Donna Edwards, went on to volunteer in one of Wynn's early congressional campaigns, working at a precinct and passing out literature.
"I really supported him when he first ran," said Edwards, 48, a Fort Washington Democrat. "It's just been in recent years that I've been really, really disappointed."
So disappointed that the civic activist and former foundation executive is challenging Wynn, the U.S. representative from Maryland's 4th District. She says she and growing numbers of voters in the suburban Washington district are upset at Wynn's votes in favor of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's energy and bankruptcy bills.
The incumbent acknowledges that this is the most competitive race of his seven-term tenure.
"I'm taking this as a very serious campaign," said Wynn, 54, of Mitchellville in Prince George's County. "But she doesn't have the experience, and she's run a totally negative campaign. She's not offering any solutions."
Political observers say the Sept. 12 Democratic primary featuring Wynn, Edwards and Forest Heights contractor George E. McDermott has broad implications.
It could serve as a barometer, they say, of just how far anti-incumbency sentiments reach in a political season where several office-holders in other states have suffered defeats.
The fact that Edwards, a political neophyte, is attracting attention is significant given that most incumbents win re-election handily, said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"This means that there's a level of dissatisfaction with incumbents' performances," said Walters. "That doesn't happen unless some people are ready to switch their basis of support. The question I'm raising is how large is it, how significant it is."
Not strong enough to score an upset, said Walters and other observers. But the specific results could provide further evidence, after the defeat of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary last month, of a fed-up electorate ready to usher in a new crop of politicians. Democrats hope that dissent could hand them control of one or both chambers of Congress.
Wynn, like Lieberman, has broken with his party several times and voted in favor of measures backed by the Bush administration - votes that Edwards frequently mentions. So a poor showing would suggest the degree to which voters will take out their unhappiness with the president on congressional incumbents in the midterm election, observers say.
"The prospects for seat change this year for incumbents - both Republicans and Democrats - are greater than they have been in recent years, and that has attracted better challengers and it has emboldened them," said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The 4th District, which includes portions of Prince George's and Montgomery counties, is heavily Democratic with a strong, well-organized black electorate. The winner of the primary will face Republican Michael Moshe Starkman, 28, of Rockville, a manager for a software development company.
Observers say the Wynn-Edwards race highlights a growing division within the black community between old-school liberals, traditionally associated with urban constituencies, and a new brand of black Democrats, like Wynn, attuned to the more moderate views of their suburban base.
"Black members like Wynn are beginning to take more moderate positions on things like taxes and spending and splitting off the traditional liberal views from the black caucus," said Gimpel.
Edwards, he said, is more left-leaning. She has lobbied for many progressive causes, including a higher minimum wage, campaign finance reform and domestic-violence funding.
Her candidacy has attracted the praise of liberal bloggers and Hollywood heavyweights. Barbra Streisand and Susan Sarandon donated to her campaign. Feminist Gloria Steinem has a glowing letter on Edwards' Web site. And actor and activist Danny Glover recorded an automated phone message in support of Edwards.
She won the endorsement last week of The Washington Post, which praised her as "one of the smartest and most impressive newcomers in Maryland politics."
Still, Edwards does not appear to have the political operation and financial heft of Wynn. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Edwards raised a total of $260,538 and had $31,176 left as of Aug. 23. Wynn had $377,326 on hand and has raised $573,094.
Wynn, an attorney who served in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates, counts securing money for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, anti-gang efforts, prison re-entry programs and diabetes screenings as accomplishments during his last term, along with the consolidation of the Food and Drug Administration.
"She's at a disadvantage because she has no record," said Wynn.