By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 20, 2006; B01
CRISFIELD, Md., July 20 -- Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had just arrived at the marina Wednesday afternoon when a swarm of supporters wearing green T-shirts and holding green signs began chanting his name.
What happened next seemed all but inevitable.
The Democratic candidate for governor ran smack into a throng of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s backers, clad in white T-shirts, waving navy blue signs and chanting -- at least as loudly -- "Four more years!"
It was a fitting welcome to the 30th Annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake.
One day a year -- the third Wednesday of July -- the center of Maryland's political universe moves 2 1/2 hours southeast from Annapolis to this Eastern Shore city, as candidates make direct appeals to a captive sun- and beer-soaked audience. Never is that more true than in an election year, such as this one, when crowds can swell to more than 5,000.
"It's one of the last bastions of retail politics," said Len Foxwell, a longtime Democratic operative enjoying his 13th consecutive Tawes event, named for a former governor. "You hear a lot about no-spin zones these days. Tawes is the real no-spin zone. No campaign ads. No campaign consultants. Just candidates talking to real people about issues of the day."
And the food isn't bad either. Think steamed crabs, fried clams, corn on the cob, watermelon -- and plenty of beer.
Upon entering the event, set on a sweltering parking lot outside the city's marina, patrons came upon a sign proclaiming, "Eat All You Want. But Eat It Here." Before they could get there, Democratic volunteers offered round stickers advertising O'Malley's run for governor, square stickers advertising Douglas Gansler's run for attorney general and hand-held fans promoting Josh Rales's run for U.S Senate.
There was no shortage of candidates themselves. Stuart O. Simms, a Democratic candidate for attorney general, was among the early arrivals, planting himself firmly in a strategic spot in the parking lot. "Good afternoon ladies," he shouted to a group carrying a box-load of crabs. "Stuart Simms, my name. I'd like to be your next attorney general. Eat a crab for me."
Simms's two primary opponents, Gansler and Montgomery County council member Tom Perez, also worked the crowd.
"By historical accident or intent, this has definitely become the political event of the summer," said Gansler, Montgomery's chief prosecutor, after lathering sunscreen on his nose, cheeks and neck.
With the day's scorching heat, the crowd seemed pleased when rain started falling toward the end of the event.
Locals say the clam bake was born as a civic event, with an eye toward promoting tourism. Over the years, it has grown in size and importance for aspiring politicians statewide.
"This is the Super Bowl of political schmooze," said John Kane, chairman of the state Republican Party.
Fittingly, he ran across Terry Lierman, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, just moments later. Lierman promptly razzed Kane about his "drinking and smoking" -- Kane was holding a cigar and near-empty cup of beer, like many others around him. Kane razzed Lierman about his attire -- he was wearing a dress shirt and slacks, unlike most anyone around him.
There were a few high-profile no-shows, including Ehrlich. But Kristen Cox, his newly minted running mate, was busy posing for pictures and shaking hands at her first Tawes.
Cox, the state's secretary of disabilities, said her only disappointment was that she had not yet sampled the food. "Even if it's eating a plate in the car on the way home, I will be eating clams," she said, calling herself "a clam fiend."
The two leading Democratic candidates for Senate, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, were unable to attend, though Cardin sent his wife, Myrna.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican front-runner for Senate, drew the most spirited reception upon his entrance, with a large group of supporters whooping it up as he climbed out of a black SUV.
Two Democrats running for comptroller, Del. Peter Franchot (Montgomery) and Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, were also on hand.
"It really, simply is the place to come to be seen," Owens said, standing in front of a tent sponsored by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the fellow Democrat she and Franchot are trying to oust. He was not in attendance.