- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

FAIR HILL, Md. | It’s so hot that babies are crying at the Cecil County Fair, but Republican state Sen. Andrew P. Harris is all smiles handing out plates of barbecued chicken at a GOP fundraiser.

Mr. Harris exudes confidence in his contest for an open seat in the 1st Congressional District. He’s taking on Queen Anne’s County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil, a Democrat, but Republicans at the fair say Mr. Harris has a big advantage because of Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.

The governor attended Mr. Kratovil’s campaign announcement last year and is a key ally. But Mr. O’Malley’s approval ratings have slipped since he steered through $1.4 billion in new taxes that took effect this year. Although Mr. Kratovil isn’t disavowing the governor, he’s not exactly posing for pictures with him, either.

“Nobody likes the governor,” said Diane Carabetta of Perryville, a Republican activist who came to the fair to greet Mr. Harris, who knocked off incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest in February in a bruising primary.

Democrats insist that this is their best shot in 20 years of winning the seat that includes the Eastern Shore and parts of the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford.

But Mr. Harris is confident.

“It’s the homestretch,” he said, calling the primary his “biggest challenge” in a district that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House since 1988.

Indeed, Mr. Harris knocked off Mr. Gilchrest by highlighting his own conservative credentials and arguing that Mr. Gilchrest was too moderate for the district. An obstetric anesthesiologist from Harford County, Mr. Harris opposes abortion, taxes and especially Mr. O’Malley. Holding onto a fundraising advantage over Mr. Kratovil, Mr. Harris said his job is only getting easier as voters worry about high gas prices and the economy.

“The issues have changed in this race, and they’re very favorable for me,” Mr. Harris said, citing his call to suspend the national gas tax and ratchet back other taxes to stimulate the economy.

Mr. Harris’ lower-taxes pitch goes over well with Eastern Shore Republicans frustrated by Mr. O’Malley’s tax plan, passed last year to address a looming state deficit. The taxes are so unpopular with some that “Owe’Malley” stickers appear on some Eastern Shore bumpers.

“I think [Mr. O’Malley] spends too much money, and he doesn’t think enough about where it comes from,” said Robert Orndorf of North East, another Republican at the dinner. “You gotta run a state like a household. If, at the end of the month, you have less money than you started with, you’re doing something wrong.”

Even Republicans who backed Mr. Gilchrest in the primary say the unpopularity of state Democrats in the 1st District gives Mr. Harris a clear path to Congress.

“Of course, you never want to say anything’s in the bag. But what’s that old adage? ‘You’re known by the company you keep?’ You’re seeing it here,” said Delegate Richard A. Sossi, a Republican at the chicken dinner.

For Mr. Kratovil, though, there are signs that Mr. Harris doesn’t have the race sewn up.

The law-and-order Democrat says he has seen fundraising pick up, narrowing Mr. Harris’ money advantage, especially since the national Democratic Party named the 1st District seat a priority for congressional gains this fall. In the quarter ending June 30, Mr. Harris had about $609,000 cash on hand, to Mr. Kratovil’s $454,027.

Mr. Kratovil says he’s picking up his campaign schedule while remaining a prosecutor, and that voters are responding to his pledge to be independent of Mr. O’Malley and other Democratic leaders.

“The momentum has shifted in this race,” Mr. Kratovil said last week in an interview.

“We’re finding on the campaign trail that people want a candidate who isn’t going to follow any one particular platform but is going to represent the district,” said Mr. Kratovil, who dismisses Mr. Harris’ call for a gas-tax suspension as “ridiculous,” but shares Mr. Harris’ support for more domestic oil production and calls himself fiscally conservative.

Mr. Kratovil said he’s focusing on Democrats and moderate Republicans who had voted for Mr. Gilchrest for years and may be persuaded to change parties because of how conservative Mr. Harris is. Mr. Gilchrest hasn’t endorsed a successor.

“I really feel the momentum’s changed and that moderate Republicans are turning my way,” Mr. Kratovil said.

Democrats in the district think Mr. Kratovil can succeed in capturing the middle.

“He’s not an extremist on either side, so he’ll appeal to a broad spectrum,” said Hope Harrington of Easton.

Neither candidate has started TV advertising yet, and except for fundraisers and personal appearances, the campaigning has been limited to candidate signs sprinkled across the district. The light campaigning won’t last.

“I’m a prosecutor,” Mr. Kratovil said, promising the campaign will move into higher gear after Labor Day. “Although I’m also a nice guy, I think it’s important people know the differences between us.”

Mr. Kratovil isn’t worried that Mr. O’Malley’s unpopularity will sink the campaign. Though the governor attended Mr. Kratovil’s candidacy announcement and fundraisers, Mr. Kratovil stresses his independence.

“I think people are smart enough to make their own decisions on individual candidates,” he says.

A spokesman for Mr. O’Malley, Rick Abbruzzese, said the governor will help Mr. Kratovil “however he can” - but he added that a bigger priority for Mr. O’Malley this fall is pushing for approval of a referendum to allow slot-machine gambling. “The governor’s focused on running the state,” Mr. Abbruzzese said.

Back at the fair, Mr. Harris seems not to worry the seat will fall out of Republican hands.

“Our polling shows this is a district that will send a Republican to Congress,” he says.

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