CRISFIELD — — It's a Maryland thing.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. joined thousands of sweltering crab-pickers Wednesday who circled though tents and tables at the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake.
O'Malley labeled it a "must-attend event." Ehrlich called it a "have-to." The 34-year-old tradition draws politicians from across Maryland — never more so than in an election year — to a sleepy Eastern Shore town. This fall, voters will choose a governor, all 188 state legislators, local officials, a U.S. senator and members of Congress.
"It's almost kind of a political rite of passage," O'Malley said of the Tawes event, named after the former governor from Crisfield.
O'Malley and Ehrlich, who are poised for a rematch this fall, arrived about 2 p.m., giving rise to the day's most awkward political moment.
Their aides eyed one another, trying to silently size up ways that the political foes could avoid each other's paths. O'Malley strode in first, to applause, hoots and a swarm of green-shirted supporters, while Ehrlich waited in a nearby parking lot.
When Ehrlich made his entrance to his own cheering section 15 minutes later, he called the Tawes tradition "about as Maryland as you get. ... It's part of our political heritage."
Each made his way through the sweaty masses, O'Malley accompanied by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Ehrlich with running mate Mary D. Kane. Republican gubernatorial challenger Brian Murphy and a squad of vocal supporters also made the rounds.
In stark contrast to the Tawes event in 2006, which Ehrlich skipped and O'Malley breezed through in the final 20 minutes, both held court for two hours. Members of O'Malley's entourage repeatedly pointed out how vastly they outnumbered Ehrlich's.
"I know they have a presence here, so good for them," longtime Ehrlich aide Greg Massoni said. "This isn't a place where any voters' minds are changed."
State Sen. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican running to represent the congressional district that includes the Eastern Shore, stuck close to Ehrlich for much of the afternoon. He called the event "a great chance to meet folks and try to find out what they are thinking."
Harris is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, who lives on the Eastern Shore but was in Washington for House votes Wednesday.
Kratovil and Harris had their own support teams, each clad in yellow T-shirts with dark lettering. Harris clarified that his shirts have navy letters, representative of his service in the Naval Reserves. Kratovil's lettering is black.
While hundreds of local residents packed picnic tables to chow down, the politicians made their way to tents sponsored by businesses and political groups. Holding court at his black-and-yellow-striped tent was lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who called the crab feast "the best day of my life" and "the Super Bowl of politics," phrases he has used to describe other major events, including the Preakness in Baltimore.
"This one," he said, "this is the big crab daddy. Schmoozing and politics, it doesn't get any better than this."
Though he's an Ehrlich supporter, Bereano was elated when O'Malley popped into his tent, where former Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel also spent the afternoon.
Organizers say they were expecting 6,000 people at this year's festival. Some other numbers: 41,000 clams, 300 bushels of crabs and a high of 94 degrees.