They both began their careers as boy wonders of Maryland Democratic politics, racing through Annapolis on their way to Congress. Both aspire to bigger things. But this week, they stand as far apart as war and peace.

"We are a strong and rich country. We experienced a terrible tragedy on September 11, 2001, but we do not have to act out of fear," freshman Rep. Chris Van Hollen said late Tuesday night on the House floor, concluding an hour-long denunciation of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Yesterday afternoon, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, told diplomats and academics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that war with Iraq was the righteous and responsible path. "I do not believe that inaction is moral, safe or consistent with our commitment to a global community of law, peace and security," he said.

As politicians across the country stake out their positions on the looming conflict, the two Maryland congressmen illustrate the gulf that divides the Democratic Party.

"What you see in these guys is what you see in the Democratic caucus, which is that their positions on the war are pretty much split," said James G. Gimpel, a University of Maryland political science professor.

While congressional Republicans have largely settled behind the president, Gimpel said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) "can't exercise any party discipline on the war. And since there's not much that party leadership can do, or would want to do, the issue is largely going to be driven by each member's conscience and by their constituencies."

Only a short stretch of the Capital Beltway separates Hoyer's 5th Congressional District in Southern Maryland from the 8th, which elected Van Hollen to his first term in November. But politically, "Montgomery County and Southern Prince George's are as different as day and night," said former Maryland House majority leader Bruce Poole.

Hoyer's district is heavy with major government and military installations: the Goddard Space Flight Center, Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, where scientists worked feverishly to produce the bunker-busting bombs used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan last year.

Military families "in large part make up the fabric of our community," said Del. Van T. Mitchell, a Democrat from La Plata. "People are very patriotic and very supportive of the president's plans for going to war."

It is against this backdrop that Hoyer has crafted his hawkish position on Iraq. Yesterday, he ticked off a list of nine United Nations resolutions issued over the past 12 years that called for world condemnation of Iraq for violating its pledge to disarm after the Persian Gulf War.

"We have given Saddam Hussein more opportunities to honor his obligations, to disarm and accept the rule of law, than any vanquished aggressor should expect," Hoyer said. "I am convinced that more words and threats . . . will not deter Hussein."

Van Hollen, whose 8th District is one of the state's most liberal, began speaking out in earnest March 3, with a speech to students at the University of Maryland. He has continued to raise his profile on the issue, with appearances on a Sunday talk show, a nationally televised town meeting Monday night on MSNBC and then the House floor Tuesday.

Van Hollen's career until now has largely been focused on such concerns as Maryland's tobacco tax and its gun laws. But he does have an unusual grounding in the recent diplomatic and military history of Iraq. As a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff in 1988, he and a colleague traveled to the Turkish-Iraqi border and helped document Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. Their findings were the basis for the first sanctions proposal against Iraq, and Van Hollen has maintained close friendships with several Kurdish diplomats.

"I come to this issue with a history," Van Hollen said. "I know people from the region personally. My position has been from the start that we should be enforcing the U.N. resolutions."

Van Hollen's speeches on the subject emphasize his belief that war will not solve the region's troubles, but he said he has also taken care to make clear he does not oppose war outright.

"Having set this diplomatic process in motion, we should respect the process," he said. "And if that fails, then we would be able to build greater consensus for military action."

In the swath of Montgomery and Prince George's counties covered by Van Hollen's district, this position appears to be playing well. Montgomery County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) sent out a news release yesterday hailing the congressman's stance, saying, "I applaud his courage."

Al From, founder and chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, said the conflicting stands offered by the two Maryland congressmen is a sign that the war remains very much a matter of conscience.

"Right now, the country is split, and that's the way it always is going into a war," From said. "The real question is what happens politically when we're coming out."

Reps. Chris Van Hollen, left, and Steny H. Hoyer, like many of their fellow Democrats, have offered sharply different views on U.S. policy toward Iraq.