Howard County's Republican primary for state's attorney features two former Democrats who each claim to offer their party the best chance to defeat 12-year incumbent Democrat William R. Hymes.

Richard J. Kinlein said he's the strongest candidate because he has already proven he can win the post. He was elected to two terms as the county state's attorney, from 1966 to 1974, before stepping down to enter private practice. "I've never lost an election," he said.

Joseph Fleischmann II, who served in the Baltimore City State's Attorney Office from 1972 to 1976 and Howard County's State's Attorney Office from 1976 to 1979, said he'll campaign harder than Kinlein. He points to the fact that he spent most mornings last week politicking as commuters headed to work.

Fleischmann joined the Republican Party just before jumping into the state's attorney race. Kinlein was a registered Republican before switching to the Democratic Party to run for state's attorney in the 1960s. He has since switched back.

Party politics aside, both candidates say there are substantial differences between them. Fleischmann, 47, of Ellicott City, said he would seek the death penalty any time it is "legally and humanly possible . . . . I mean to enforce the law I'm not equivocating."

Kinlein, 54, of Mount Airy, said he has yet to see a case in Howard County where the death penalty would be warranted.

"I'm not saying if Ted Bundy came back to life that I wouldn't consider the death penalty, but I think it's a non-issue here," Kinlein said.

He added that to promise to seek the death penalty whenever such a punishment is possible "is not only irresponsible, but it borders on the cruel and unusual."

Kinlein said if he is elected he would like to allow prosecutors to maintain private practices on the side. In this way, he hopes to attract better lawyers into the prosecutor's office. Currently, such a practice is prohibited.

Kinlein also has proposed setting up an exchange program with the public defender's office to allow attorneys "to see what it's like on the other side."

"I have found that life is not all black and white. It comes in varying shades of gray," he said.

Rather than allow prosecutors to maintain private practices, Fleischmann said county prosecutors need to be invigorated, starting with the leadership at the top. "I'd work 50 to 60 hours a week," Fleischmann said. "If you are going to do a job you've got to do it 100 percent."

Both candidates said they would prosecute some cases themselves and criticized Hymes for rarely trying cases on his own.

Hymes, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary, has defended the way he runs his office, saying his office wins convictions in about 90 percent of the cases it takes.