The Citizens to Write In Sid Kramer for Montgomery County Executive swept into the Terrace Room of Rockville's Ring House, where 20 of its elderly residents were assembled.
Posters proclaiming "Write in Sid Kramer. Punch the ballot" were slapped on walls. Fliers detailing the two-step mechanics of a write-in were pressed into hands. A three-sided voting booth was set up for demonstrations.
"My name will not be on the ballot," said Kramer, acknowledging his loss in the Democratic primary to Neal Potter last month. "It's going to be a little more difficult to vote for me."
A man who all his life played by the rules, Kramer these days sounds a staccato campaign motto -- write in and punch, write in and punch -- that goes against all conventions and seeks to defy all the odds.
Maryland election officials say they aren't aware of any successful write-in campaigns in state history. No serious write-in has ever been attempted in Montgomery. And, historically, with such notable exceptions as Strom Thurmond's 1954 election to the U.S. Senate from South Carolina, there have been few successes.
"It's just his impossible dream," Montgomery Democratic Party Chairman Michael Gildea said of Kramer's against-all-odds and, some say, against-all-logic bid.
However, no one -- not Gildea, not Potter and not the Democratic establishment, which has everything to lose if Kramer wins -- is writing off this write-in effort.
Kramer, 65, has a long political history in the county, serving on the council and in the state Senate before his 1986 election as county executive. His loss in a race where he had all the advantages of incumbency, money and endorsements surprised and angered him, and part of his belief that he can win Nov. 6 is rooted in the fury that he lost a race he should have won.
Working for him is a committed group of volunteers who hit the ground running with a scrappy campaign that has kept the Potter campaign on the defensive. And, in a week's time, Kramer picked up the endorsements of the county firefighters, police and a group of business leaders -- important as a statement of credibility and for the air of momentum afforded the campaign.
Working against him is virtually every Democratic officeholder and the party organization. The county teachers, perhaps the most politically potent group this year, and county workers are lined up on Potter's side. The grass-roots organization behind Potter's primary victory is still in place, aided by an infusion of money and volunteers.
And just the mechanics of a write-in campaign create a huge obstacle.
This has been, in the common judgment of most party activists, the craziest of election years and there are no predictable guideposts.
Democratic County Council candidate Gail Ewing said, "Neal Potter spoiled it for Sid Kramer in the primary and now what we are looking at is Sid Kramer trying to spoil it for Neal Potter."
The question that keeps coming up when the Kramer write-in effort is discussed is "Why?"
Kramer rebuffed the best advice of friends and campaign professionals when he reentered a race he had graciously exited just three weeks earlier. He has opened himself and his wife, Betty Mae, who frequently is mentioned as the force behind Kramer's decision, to harsh attacks from former political friends.
Kramer says that others -- people who didn't vote because they thought he was a shoo-in or people who voted for Potter but really didn't think he would win -- coaxed him back into the race. He says the overdevelopment issue that dogged him during the primary has been replaced by jitters over a coming recession.
And Kramer argues that he is the best qualified, indeed the only one of the candidates competent, to run Montgomery government.
Friends say he believes that and, of equal importance, believes he can win.
"On paper, with a lot of dreaming, the numbers work," said one county activist.
Kramer in the Sept. 11 primary polled 39,767 votes to Potter's 43,480. The Kramer campaign assumes he can hold on to that base, add more Democrats (197,037 are registered) and then dip into the pool of Republicans (120,177) and independents (48,657) to edge out Potter and Republican nominee Albert Ceccone.
Kramer polled 121,525 votes in his 1986 general election and the betting is he had a lot of Republican and independent support.
In some of his recent campaign stump speeches, Kramer mocks the notion that write-in campaigns don't work. There are, he said, people now serving in Congress who got there via a write-in.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.) is one of them. He told a Kramer campaign member about his 1982 campaign: Thousands of small pencils were imprinted with write-in intructions for distribution on Election Day and the major task was teaching people how to vote for a write-in. Those ideas have been incorporated into the Kramer campaign, including the pencils (100,000 on order for $4,000).
But Packard said he also told them, based on the nature of the Montgomery campaign, that "I don't think they have the cause or the purpose that emerged in my write-in . . . the candidate that won the Republican primary turned out to be a very controversial figure and without that I could not have won."
Controversial is the word. The millionaire businessman to whom Packard lost by 92 votes subsequently was shown to have had a history of drinking problems and run-ins with police, and his campaign tactics were so unscrupulous that he was censored by a GOP ethics panel. Packard had five months to prepare his write-in campaign, $120,000 to spend, 7,000 volunters and the editorial backing of the newspapers in his district.
Since his reentry into the race, Kramer has taken off the gloves he wore during the primary. He has said repeatedly that the 75-year-old Potter is not up to the job and that he can't be trusted.
Kramer, in one published interview, said he had received reports of Potter dozing at council meetings, and Kramer's write-in campaign has mailed letters to the homes of teachers saying that Potter in a radio interview had called for a renegotiating of teacher contracts.
Potter, often called the county's elder statesman, has helped create some uncomfortable moments for his campaign.
"He's got a case of foot-in-mouth disease," said one Democrat, noting the flap Potter caused by discussing teacher contracts or voicing his support for putting a landfill in a North Potomac quarry.
Some Potter advisers have urged him in the campaign's final days to cut down on attending candidates forums and not to be so accessible to the media.
But Potter has refused and in recent days has responded to the Kramer write-in with a flurry of campaigning: showing up in last Tuesday's downpour for the morning rush at the Shady Grove Metro station and stumping stations in Bethesda and Wheaton on subsequent mornings.
He said he is not bothered by Kramer's stepped-up attacks, except for being miffed at the suggestion of napping at council sessions.
"Kramer lost the primary for a reason," said Mark Simon, president of the union representing the county's 7,300 teachers, which is strongly backing Potter. Simon said a recent poll commissioned by the union shows Kramer to have a 38 percent unfavorable rating, compared with 13 percent for Potter.
The poll, conducted Oct. 10 to 11 of 412 voters, showed Potter with 43 percent support, Kramer with 19 percent and Ceccone with 7 percent, Simon said. The rest were undecided.
That kind of voter disinterest -- only 43 percent of registered Democrats and 23 percent of Republicans went to the polls in the primary -- is not seen as helping a campaign dependent upon people so highly motivated they will break their normal routine to "write-in and punch."
Consider Janice Rau, 42, a real estate agent and Rockville resident. She voted for Kramer in the primary, still thinks he would be better for the county but admits the idea of a write-in is a bit daunting.
"He might lose there. If it's too frustrating, I must just say oh, okay, there goes Potter," Rau said.