Three years ago, Wayne T. Gilchrest was an obscure schoolteacher whose knockabout re'sume' included a year secluded in the Idaho wilderness and whose political dream was openly derided by his own Republican Party.
Now, he's a contender. He nearly defeated incumbent Rep. Roy P. Dyson (D-Md.) in 1988, won a surprisingly easy victory over seven other Republicans in the September primary and calls on support from the White House on down. Successful or not in his rematch against Dyson, this time Gilchrest is being taken seriously.
Over the past two weeks he has been showered with attention, including a personal audience with President Bush; campaign appearances by two Cabinet secretaries; a radio spot by disc jockey Adrian Kronauer, whose exploits were the basis for the film "Good Morning, Vietnam"; and tactical help from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
It is heady stuff for a man who lists "humility" as one of the chief planks of his political platform, and who says his main criticism of Dyson, despite the swirl of controversy surrounding the representative, is that he does not have the "intellectual capacity" to serve in the House. In a campaign many thought would turn into a raucous fight over Dyson's record, from his status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War to his present ties to defense contractors, Gilchrest has avoided caustic remarks.
Dyson "does not represent the type of person that I want making decisions that will affect my kids," Gilchrest, 45, said in an interview last week. "I don't think there is any commitment. Roy Dyson is a professional politician."
And Wayne Gilchrest most decidedly is not.
Three years ago he was trekking back to Maryland with his wife and three children from a year in Idaho surrounded by snow, mountains and wildlife. His jaw was wired because of an injury suffered while riding a horse, and Gilchrest said he was trying hard to digest the lesson offered by the family's Walden-like experience in an abandoned U.S. Forest Service cabin.
"Here you are, 40 years old, unemployed, with your children in the mountains . . . . People thought I was crazy," Gilchrest said. "I did not want to pass away from the face of the Earth and not in some way try to understand what we were here for to begin with.
"Finding out the meaning of life cannot be your goal . . . . It is like being happy. What do you mean being happy? What are you going to do? You have to do things."
What Gilchrest did, in the course of two campaigns over the last three years, is convert initial ridicule from state Republicans into a more than fighting chance to go to Congress. The race, at this point, is considered a tossup, and is perhaps the GOP's best chance in the nation to oust an incumbent Democrat.
Gilchrest's campaign themes remain unconventional, and seem more suitable to the Methodist seminaries he once contemplated joining than to modern politics: Humility, compassion, commitment, faith and love, are what he says should be the focus of political life. In interviews, he is apt to begin discussing American transcendentalist writers, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or offer aphorisms such as "You cannot be successful if you don't love your children more than you hate your enemies."
After stints on a family farm in New York, a chicken slaughterhouse in New England and a program for juvenile delinquents in his native New Jersey, he said he had planned to ride a horse across the country before an injury and marriage led him to settle into a teaching career.
"Wayne's appeal is that Wayne is Wayne," and has maintained his support among voters while rebuffing efforts to polish his message or style, said Kevin Igoe, executive director of the state GOP.
Such acceptance came grudgingly. When the 1988 campaign opened, Dyson was considered invulnerable and state Republicans generally turned their backs on a GOP primary race between two unknowns. Gilchrest won the nomination, but it wasn't until Dyson's chief aide, Thomas M. Pappas, committed suicide in New York City that party officials took notice.
Their reaction was to try to force Gilchrest out of the race so that a "credible" opponent could take advantage of the controversy unfolding around Dyson. Along with Pappas's suicide, there were revelations about Dyson's ties to defense contractors implicated in a criminal probe of Pentagon contracting. Although the five-term representative was never named as a target of the investigation, he was damaged by disclosures that he received speaking fees and tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from defense-related political action committees and consultants whose projects he supported over objections from the Pentagon.
Gilchrest would not relinquish the nomination, and came within 1,500 votes of defeating Dyson.
Events continue to play to his benefit. In addition to the Vietnam conscientious objector issue, which drew the now-hawkish Dyson's credibility into question, Dyson was further marred by the release in New York of an FBI affidavit showing that he might have been more involved than was previously thought with a circle of defense consultants convicted in the federal contracting probe.
"Wayne has got everything necessary to win a campaign," said Allan C. Levey, former chairman of the state Republican Party. "What we need to do is get the momentum going."
Whether Gilchrest can carry his "Mr. Smith" mystique to Washington is another thing. Some supporters are worried that his home-grown campaign, despite the guidance of national strategists, remains spottily organized and perpetually behind schedule, while his refusal to attack Dyson may have given the incumbent a chance to regroup.
Still, Gilchrest said he will stick to issuing position papers on alternative energy policy, environmental protection and education; they have shown a mix of liberal and conservative views.
He has, for example, supported controversial non-tidal wetlands regulations that have angered some Eastern Shore property owners, opposed government regulation of abortions and said that the best approach to flag-burners is "to throw a bucket of water on them."