Flipping through a list of voters on a Towson-area street, state Sen. James Brochin took note of the "R" next to Rita Kraus's name and knocked on her door.
"I'm a Democrat," he told her, adding jokingly, "That's the bad news."
The good news, he said, is that he has supported Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. when he felt the state's top Republican was right and opposed him when he thought Ehrlich was wrong.
Kraus told him she wants tougher sentences for criminals before adding: "I'll read your pamphlet, and I'll think about it."
Brochin is seeking a second term, but standing in his way is Republican Douglas B. Riley, a former two-term Baltimore County councilman who won more than 40 percent of the vote in his bid for county executive in 2002.
Political observers say that given the composition of the 42nd district - a little more than half the voters are Democrats, though Ehrlich enjoyed widespread support there in 2002 - the race is pivotal.
"It's one of the battleground districts in the state legislative election," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University who has contributed to Brochin's campaign. "It can go either way."
The race has not always been kind, with Brochin holding a news conference last week accusing Riley and other Republicans of deceptive campaign advertising.
Riley, a 53-year-old Towson lawyer, said the district lacks a leader to unite its communities. He tells voters he's running for mayor of Towson.
He last held office in 1998, when, after eight years on the council, he kept a campaign promise not to seek a third term. Four years later, he lost to Democrat James T. Smith Jr. in the county executive race.
He says he got the itch to run for office again in recent years when people would call him with concerns about development. He said all he could do was tell them to call other people.
"I became very frustrated with the lack of leadership," Riley said.
He faults Brochin for failing to get the state to buy development rights from the Country Club of Maryland in Towson, where 36 semidetached houses are planned. Brochin said he wasn't able to persuade others to support spending enough state money to block the proposal.
"It may not be that easy, but an effective senator is able to come up with that money," Riley said.
Riley said that with the state population expected to balloon in coming years, there needs to be more planning for growth on the state level. "It used to be that land-use issues were all local. That has changed," he said.
One of his mailings to constituents reads that "Doug Riley will defend your home." It refers to Brochin's support for legislation that allowed Baltimore City to condemn certain properties valued at less than $25,000 under eminent domain laws.
The ad - and another from a GOP group that said Brochin "didn't protect our homes" - angered Brochin, who stood alongside Republican Del. John G. Trueschler last week to denounce them.
Brochin has also cried foul over a mailing, which did not contain an authority line, about a National Rifle Association event "to thank our friend Senator Jim Brochin for keeping assault weapons legal in Maryland."
Riley said he does not know who was behind the ad.
As of Sept. 1, Riley had a slightly bigger campaign account, with $51,400, though Brochin had outspent Riley 12-to-1, according to campaign finance records.
Brochin, a 42-year-old insurance broker, has long labeled himself an independent-minded Democrat. He beat Republican Martha S. Klima, then a 20-year state delegate, in a newly drawn district in 2002. During that election, he angered some Democrats by refusing to endorse party nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the governor's race.
This year, he has run a television ad featuring a man described as a Republican who has Parkinson's disease. The ad refers to Brochin's vote in favor of a bill for stem cell research funding. Another Brochin television ad features a mother, also described as a Republican, expressing concern about sex offenders near schools.
Brochin's bill to forbid sex offenders from living near schools did not pass.
He also supported the governor's plan for slot machines at Maryland racetracks.
But his bill to limit development near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore was not supported by the governor. Even Democratic leaders voted against the proposal, which died in the Senate.
"Ideas ahead of ideology, public policy ahead of partisanship," he told a crowd at a debate in Towson last week, describing his approach to government. "I've put people ahead of party."
For the three seats in the House of Delegates representing the 42nd district, incumbent Republican Dels. William J. Frank and Susan L.M. Aumann are seeking a second term. The other Republican in the race is Dilip Paliath. Trueschler is not seeking re-election.