For the first time in more than a decade, today's primary election promises plenty of drama.
Two major figures in the Democratic Party - Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume - are battling each other and a host of other challengers to take on Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in what could be a nationally watched race to replace five-term U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes.
And in what could be the biggest Election Day story of all, another powerful Democrat, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, embroiled in controversy over his unvarnished remarks, is putting a 50-year winning streak on the line against the two most credible opponents he's faced in years - Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery County and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.
Cardin's move into the Senate race has set off a free-for-all for his old 3rd District seat that has brought more than a dozen newcomers into Maryland politics. J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s retirement pits two heavyweights in the Democratic primary for attorney general, with a solid, though underfunded, Republican waiting for them in the fall.
"It's an important time for Maryland, a generational time in terms of leadership," said Sherrilyn Ifill, a University of Maryland law professor. "One of the wonderful things about Maryland and Baltimore in particular is the loyalty we have to our leaders from the past. It also happens to be a weakness, in that sometimes we're not sufficiently prepared for new ideas."
Republicans have high-profile primaries in some legislative districts and local races as the party attempts to capitalize on momentum from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s win four years ago.
But in the federal and statewide races, the major competition is almost all on the Democratic ballot, with one key exception. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is unchallenged in his bid to win the nomination and challenge Ehrlich, who is also unopposed, in the general election.
The lack of primary competition in the marquee gubernatorial race could dampen the turnout, said State Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone. She predicted that 33 percent of the state's registered voters would cast ballots today, well down from the 40 percent who voted in the contested gubernatorial primary of 1994 but higher than the figures in 1998 and 2002 because of the hard-fought races down the ballot.
Registered Democrats who are regular primary voters have found themselves showered with attention from candidates like never before as automated telephone calls and slick, glossy brochures became the norm.
"There's been a lot of excitement and a lot of money spent," said Theodore G. Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive. "I got a half-dozen telephone calls today alone. I can't remember getting one before. Over the weekend, we must have had 10 of them."
Schaefer, who served as both Baltimore mayor and governor, has dominated the news in the past week by comparing Owens to Mother Hubbard, complaining that she was mannish, making fun of her clothes and hair, and saying that she was "getting fat."
Schaefer, 84, then accused Owens, 62, of starting the name-calling by comparing her conversation with him about running to taking away a grandparent's car keys.
Franchot has been largely out of the fray - and the free media coverage it spawned - but has a pile of endorsements, including those of powerful organizations such as the Maryland State Teachers Association.
Four Republicans are seeking their party's primary nomination: Stephen N. Abrams, a businessman and Montgomery County school board member; Anne M. McCarthy, a former college dean; Mark M. Spradley, a financial adviser; and Gene Zarwell, a perennial candidate.
Another high-profile race - and certainly the most expensive - has been the U.S. Senate contest to replace Sarbanes, who announced 18 months ago that he would not seek re-election. Polls have generally shown a close contest between Cardin and Mfume, with more than a dozen other candidates trailing them.
They have waged a gentlemanly campaign befitting their long friendship and similar policy views, but they have offered a stylistic contrast. Cardin is known as a quiet, behind-the-scenes compromise-maker and Mfume as a vocal, out-front advocate.
One of the major questions to be answered today is how much impact Montgomery County businessman Josh Rales will have on the race after spending more than $5 million of his own money on television ads introducing himself to the voters.
Most observers think that Mfume's base of African-American voters will stay loyal but that Rales and other candidates could chip away at Cardin's support.
The winner will almost certainly face Steele, who has token opposition in the primary. Complicating the picture for the general election will be Kevin Zeese, an anti-Iraq war activist who has the nominations of the Green, Populist and Libertarian parties. He is likely to try to pull the debate to the left.
In other major races: