For Martin O'Malley, the road to the Maryland governor's mansion in Annapolis loops through Montgomery County. For Douglas M. Duncan, it loops all the way to Jerusalem.

Two of the state's leading Democrats, Baltimore Mayor O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Duncan, left home last week, at least in part to further their respective quests to become the candidate who will challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in 2006.

Both men are making forays into the other's territory. On Tuesday evening, O'Malley attended a meet-and-greet session with Montgomery Democrats at a private home in Cabin John. By that time, Duncan was in Israel. "I'm in Montgomery County," O'Malley observed, reflecting on the obvious irony, "and Doug Duncan is with the Baltimore Jewish Council."

Duncan and O'Malley are gubernatorial candidates in all but name. O'Malley said Tuesday that he had not announced an intention to run, but those who attended his talk made clear that they were shopping. "I am eager to get behind the best Democratic candidate" for governor, said Stacey FitzSimmons of Chevy Chase.

Duncan's campaign is also undeclared, but the tiny number of elected officials who showed up to hear O'Malley -- one state senator, one delegate and one County Council member -- suggested that Duncan has persuaded the county's Democratic leaders to back him. Several years ago, when Duncan was pondering whether to challenge Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, then the lieutenant governor, for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he found out too late that she had signed on a lot of key players in Montgomery. Duncan will not be the late bird this time.

As County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said days before the O'Malley event, expressing his intention not to attend: "I have a candidate for governor." He meant Duncan. Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), the only council member to appear at the function, described his presence as "due diligence." Democratic state Sen. Jennie M. Forehand also attended.

Lanny J. Davis, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and the organizer of O'Malley's talk, said Duncan had discouraged attendance. But a half-dozen invitees queried ahead of the event said they had not heard any such advice from Duncan or his allies. Even so, the invitation to meet O'Malley put some people on the spot.

One invitee, Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D-Montgomery), initially told Davis's office he would come, but later he seemed to be having second thoughts. "I'm not even sure they would want me to attend if I'm already a committed Duncan supporter," he said late last month. "Maybe I won't go." He didn't.

Del. Brian J. Feldman (D-Montgomery), one of the trio of Montgomery elected officials who showed up to hear O'Malley, said the low turnout was not a surprise. "It's to be expected that there's a certain amount of loyalty to the county executive." Among the unelected, O'Malley drew about 50 people, mainly party organizers and activists.

He offered a low-key stump talk: lots of praise for Montgomery's politicians (including Duncan), a review of the improvements he has wrought in Baltimore, blunt-edged criticism of the Ehrlich administration and a willingness to talk openly about raising taxes if that is what good governance demands. "I think we have to acknowledge," he said, referring to Ehrlich's revenue enhancements, "that fees are also taxes."

Davis, who stood just behind O'Malley, in the manner of an impresario, pronounced it "very refreshing" to hear from a Democrat "who believes in government and what it can do for people."

O'Malley passed on an opportunity to draw distinctions between himself and Duncan, but it was clear that he casts himself as a Democrat's Democrat, in contrast with the centrist, pragmatic politics of the county executive.

Eleanor Rice, a Bethesda Democratic activist, seemed pleased with what she had heard. "I like him," she said. "I really was experiencing despair because I consider Doug 'Republican Light.' " O'Malley will return to Montgomery on June 14 to address a meeting of the Montgomery County Civic Federation.

Duncan is on his third trip to Israel as county executive; the only other foreign country he has visited as Montgomery's leader is Scotland, where he met with biotechnology representatives in 2000.

Reached in his Jerusalem hotel room, he said he was invited by the Baltimore Jewish Council to join a delegation of "non-Jewish influentials," in the phrase of the council's executive director, Arthur C. Abramson.

"They were interested in getting to know me better," Duncan said. "It's a good opportunity to meet some people and talk about some issues facing our state."

The 17-member delegation includes four Maryland lawmakers, among them Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Baltimore County) and Del. Salima Siler Marriott (D-Baltimore), along with several business people and two Ehrlich administration staffers.

Mingling with these lawmakers is only Duncan's most recent opportunity to win friends in O'Malley's back yard. In April, he gave a keynote speech to a Baltimore area Democratic club and attended a house party in Baltimore County. Duncan's schedule these days has him attending an average of two fundraisers a month.

His 11-day itinerary in Israel mixes tourism with conversations with several Israeli experts and one Palestinian analyst. The activities range from a mud bath in the Dead Sea to a visit to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

He, too, passed on an opportunity to define the differences between his leadership and O'Malley's. "I'm more worried about working hard for my county than separating myself from anyone else," Duncan said, noting that he had set up several side meetings with Israelis interested in investing in Montgomery.

Duncan said the benefits of the journey extend beyond getting to know the other participants and drumming up foreign investment. "You learn a lot," he said. "When you speak to Jewish groups, there's real interest in what you've learned."