The host at yesterday's prayer breakfast was a popular state delegate from Prince George's County. But there, greeting guests with handshakes and hugs, was Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
Later in the morning, another out-of-town guest swooped in: Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Like Duncan, he heaped heavy praise on state Del. Obie Patterson (D) as the 400 guests finished up a buffet breakfast in a hotel ballroom in Clinton.
Maryland Democrats will not choose their candidate for governor for another 21 months, but yesterday's event underscores the extent to which both leading contenders have started jockeying for position -- and the important role that Prince George's could play in determining who wins the party's nod to take on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
Nearly two-thirds of the state's registered Democrats live in just four jurisdictions: Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties and Baltimore.
Duncan has a strong base in Montgomery, and O'Malley is well positioned in Baltimore and its suburbs, where the telegenic young mayor is a constant presence on the evening news.
Among large jurisdictions, that leaves Prince George's, a county that is now home to more Democrats than any jurisdiction in the state and that delivered 82 percent of its vote for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry.
Duncan, in particular, needs to win over those voters if he hopes to prevail in the Democratic primary against O'Malley, who has a sizable lead in early statewide polling.
"I have some great friendships there, and I hope to make some more," Duncan said in an interview last week.
A look at his political calendar suggests as much. In the past six months, Duncan has made more than 100 appearances outside Montgomery County at political dinners, civic clubs, churches and other places he can get an audience.
More than a third of those visits have been to Prince George's. The three-term county executive has become a regular Sunday morning worshiper in his neighboring county, attending services in 10 black churches in as many months.
Advisers to O'Malley say Prince George's is not nearly as crucial to the mayor's prospects if both he and Duncan move forward with gubernatorial bids. They argue that with strong performances in Baltimore and its suburbs, O'Malley would prevail if he merely held his own in other parts of the state.
O'Malley -- who was just reelected to a second term as mayor and will be sworn in Tuesday -- has gotten off to a slower start than Duncan in trying to line up Democrats to support his 2006 ambitions. But his aides pointed to two dozen appearances since May that have been part of an effort to boost the mayor's profile statewide. Aides say they expect such trips to ratchet up considerably next year, particularly in the Washington media market.
In the short term, the most important goal for both Democrats, advisers say, is to engage party activists and financial contributors whose support can be leveraged later, when more voters start tuning in before the September 2006 primary. Though it's very early in the process, those who know how it works say this part matters.
"Particularly for someone who may not be known statewide, it's important," said Sandy Brantley, a legal counsel to then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and an early Duncan supporter. "You start that buzz among the activists . . . and those people start talking about you."