The billboard along U.S. 40 in the district of Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. neatly sums up the campaign against him:
"Gun control signed into law, April 2000," proclaims the sign under a photo of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend smiling as President Bill Clinton leans in to pat Glendening's shoulder. Nearby, the smiling visage of Taylor himself.
In Western Maryland, a mountainous region that historically has leaned against the state's prevailing winds, Democrat Taylor's 28-year tenure has sometimes seemed an anomaly. He became one of the state's most powerful lawmakers and has not faced a serious election fight in more than a decade.
Until now, when some colleagues worry that a campaign by pro-gun forces and the strength of the GOP gubernatorial ticket in Western Maryland could threaten Taylor's seat in the General Assembly.
LeRoy E. Myers Jr., a virtually unknown Republican businessman who has never run for elective office, has gathered support by running on the message that Taylor has fallen out of step with his conservative district in Allegany and Cumberland counties.
The state's gun restrictions do not play well in the rural counties, where hunting and gun ownership are popular. The photograph on the billboard, sponsored by a pro-gun group, comes from the signing of legislation that made Maryland the first state to require locks on handgun triggers -- a measure that Taylor helped work through the legislature.
Further, much of the area is struggling economically and losing population, while the rest of the state has until recently enjoyed an economic boom, with population and employment on the rise. In that context, Myers has criticized Taylor and the state's Democratic leadership and promised to bring about change.
Myers has also gained significant ground, political observers say, by associating his campaign with that of Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who has proved surprisingly strong in his race for governor against Townsend.
Ehrlich is now running ads urging Western Maryland residents to elect a whole slate of GOP candidates to help him in Annapolis. While Ehrlich has not specifically supported Myers by name, radio ads in Taylor's district featuring back-to-back announcements from Myers and Ehrlich have helped create the impression of a union.
Paul Ellington, executive director for the Maryland GOP, said the Republican challenge to Taylor is being helped by "what we call the Ehrlich effect."
"We think we stand a real good chance out there," Ellington said. "Ehrlich's going to have a coattail. Bob's mopping up 2 to 1."
The Taylor camp rejects the notion that the longtime lawmaker has fallen out of step with his constituents and points to his long record of bringing jobs and state programs to his district. But yesterday, campaign manager Dave Williams acknowledged the effect that Ehrlich has had.
"Without some momentum for Ehrlich in rural Maryland, this race would not be anywhere near as close as it is," Williams said, adding, however, that he felt confident Taylor would win.
"When the day is done, one of the reasons the speaker is going to win this race is that he has focused on the programs he has created and the issues he has always worked for."
But even some Democrats worry that Ehrlich's popularity seriously threatens Taylor.
"The sense in the last week is that this is going to be a nailbiter," said one longtime Western Maryland Democrat. "There is such a surge out here for the Republicans, because they think they might actually get a governor for the first time" since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966.