He has one of Maryland's most substantial political resumes: election to the House of Delegates at age 23, eight years as speaker, nine terms in Congress beginning in 1987.

Since coming to Washington, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has easily dispatched opponents every two years, capturing an average 72 percent of the vote.

This year's Republican challenger, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Clerk Robert P. Duckworth, doesn't have Cardin's political pedigree -- or cash. But when he looks at maps of the 3rd Congressional District hanging in his Annapolis campaign office, he thinks he has a good chance of winning.

The district winds through Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties -- the heart of the political landscape where GOP leaders say they are gaining ground. Those outer suburbs were critical to the 2002 election of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican chief executive in more than three decades.

Duckworth said momentum from Ehrlich's victory makes the district more promising for a Republican in 2004.

"There are a lot of people who don't even know who their congressman is," he said. "The odds are a lot better for a Republican, and I have considerable name recognition."

Democrats say that if the race is a referendum on the GOP's popularity in the outer suburbs, Republicans are going to be disappointed -- especially in a district where registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1.

"They said there was going to be a Republican revolution in 2004, but nobody has shown up," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Even Del. David G. Boschert (R-Anne Arundel), who considered running for the GOP nomination, said Duckworth is a big underdog. "I think Bob has a shot. But it's a long shot," he said. "I'll be candid about that."

On a map, the district is an electoral river that meanders through the Washington-Baltimore suburbs, touching on blue-collar enclaves such as Glen Burnie and Elkridge and higher-income communities such as Annapolis and Columbia. It also runs through parts of Baltimore and swings north into the Baltimore County communities of Towson and Reisterstown.

Former governor Parris N. Glendening (D) redrew the district after the 2000 Census to make the neighboring 2nd (Ehrlich's district when he was in Congress) more hospitable for a Democrat. The strategy worked, resulting in the election of former Baltimore County executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in 2002.

As a result, Cardin's 3rd District became more conservative, taking on more of Anne Arundel, where Duckworth has been elected clerk three times.

Duckworth "will do better than some of Cardin's other opponents have done," said James P. Gimpel, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.

"He's not a buffoon or a kook. But ultimately that's not enough," he said. "Cardin has got substantial name recognition, and he's got a tremendous fundraising advantage."

According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Cardin has $527,000 on hand; Duckworth has $42,000.

Cardin is a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee with a reputation for bipartisan approaches to legislation, including bills overhauling the IRS and strengthening federal protection of retirement plans. As a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, he has worked "to be more aggressive in protecting our own country," he said.

If reelected, he said, he will focus on shrinking the national deficit, which in an interview he branded "immoral." The way to do that, he said, is to reduce the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare by allowing the federal government to negotiate for better prices and to ensure that every citizen has health insurance, which he said would reduce the costs of uncompensated care.

He supports the plan of Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, to persuade U.S. allies to share the costs of the war in Iraq. And he said he supports Kerry's plan to roll back the tax cuts for the country's wealthiest citizens.

Duckworth has led a largely grass-roots effort, campaigning door-to-door and at community events. He is best known in Anne Arundel County, which makes up about 40 percent of the district, as "Cupid of the Court" for presiding over so many courthouse weddings.

He made headlines this summer when he filed a motion asking a judge to throw out a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union pushing for same-sex marriage in Maryland. Duckworth entered the fray because, he said, "I really believe in traditional marriage. It needs to be between a man and a woman."

Duckworth's main message has been "if you vote for me, you'll have more money in your pocket." He said he stands for "limited government" and would fight to ease the tax burden on small businesses, make health care more affordable and clean up the Chesapeake Bay by finding money to upgrade sewage treatment plants.

In an interview, Duckworth said Cardin is a career politician who has lost touch with the residents of the district -- statements Cardin denies.

Cardin said that after redistricting, he did have to work to get to know the new parts of his district. And in 2002, the first election with the new boundaries, he had one of his closest races.

But it wasn't all that close. He won with 66 percent of the vote.

"There are a lot of people who don't even know who their congressman is," says 3rd District challenger Robert P. Duckworth. U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has dispatched his previous opponents with an average 72 percent of the vote.