The Congressional Black Caucus had been trying for months to meet with President Bush but couldn't get on his schedule.

Then, one day last summer, U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the caucus chairman, was invited to the White House to hear Bush talk about his recent trip to Africa.

The Democrat from Maryland's 7th District said thanks, but no thanks.

"If he wanted to meet with me, he needed to meet with the caucus. . . . We represent a constituency that needs to be heard by the president," he said at the time.

Friends and foes say that is Cummings's preferred way of doing business.

"Speak your convictions, stand up for the things you believe in" is the way Cummings described his approach. "Nobody is going to agree with you on everything."

In a forum at an Ellicott City retirement community Tuesday, GOP challenger Tony Salazar questioned the effectiveness of Cummings's blunt approach.

"Sometimes he who shouts the most isn't the rightest," said Salazar, who is on leave from his job as deputy general counsel for Provident Bank. "It's a question of approach and how well you work with other people," he told the audience of about 50 seniors.

The two candidates offer voters more than contrasting styles. They differ on fundamental issues: aid to education, prescription drug benefits and the war in Iraq.

A third candidate, Virginia Rodino, 29, a communications professor at Bowie State University running on the Green Party ticket, has made limited public appearances.

The economically and racially diverse 7th District is also a study in contrasts. It stretches from some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods to some of the nation's wealthiest, in Howard County. Although some black communities were removed when the district was redrawn after the 2000 Census, it retains its strong Democratic base, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by about 4 to 1. Cummings has won with at least 73 percent of the vote since his first run for Congress in 1996, though in 2002 he won in Howard County by only about 800 votes.

U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), a longtime friend and colleague who served with Cummings in the Maryland House of Delegates, said Cummings has been working hard to tune in to the needs of his new district.

"He is getting around and talking to people and listening to people," Wynn said. "One of his greatest strengths is his sincerity. He is not your typical politician. He is solidly grounded and has a very strong sense of values and principles."

Cummings, 53, is a member of the House Government Reform Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he has been able to use his post to steer transportation dollars to his district and to the state. He votes a traditional, liberal Democratic line, getting high ratings from organized labor and environmental and civil right groups. He receives lower marks from business organizations.

Cummings was among a vocal minority in the House that voted against authorizing force in Iraq. He speaks about that vote with a mixture of pride and dismay.

"I was called 'unpatriotic,' " he said Tuesday at the Heartlands retirement community in Ellicott City. "Now look where we are."

Cummings is a former speaker pro tem of the Maryland House, its second-highest leadership post, and he said he is experienced in seeking consensus and bringing people together.

"We have to leave a better world than the one we found," he said. "Yes, I do get upset. Yes, I do have a sense of urgency."

Salazar, 45, has served on the boards of various nonprofit groups that aid low-income people and is making his first run for elected office. Maryland Republicans are pleased with his campaign, though they recognize that it is an uphill race.

Howard M. Rensin, Howard County GOP chairman, said he is happy with Salazar's efforts and believes that his political positions mesh well with the district's.

"He has more energy than you can imagine," Rensin said. "He is working hard, knocking on doors. He is an energetic, open-door sort of guy who relates well to people. I think he could win."

Salazar has emphasized support for restraints on government spending, and he disputes Democratic assertions that federal requirements for school achievement cannot be met because Congress has not funded them.

Salazar said prescription drug benefits that are being added to Medicare are a good beginning; Cummings described the law's restrictions on bulk purchases by the U.S. government as "unconscionable."

Washington needs people with new ideas, and there is too much partisanship on Capitol Hill, Salazar said. He supports a line-item veto to allow the president to pare items from the federal budget, something many congressional Democrats and Republicans have long opposed. He opposes a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He opposes abortion.

Salazar supports the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq but said the current situation isn't "perfect."

He also said Cummings isn't paying attention to the district as a whole. "Unless you live in West Baltimore, Congressman Cummings doesn't care about you," Salazar said.

Cummings said he has spent many hours on weekends talking with constituents outside grocery stores in Howard, learning of their concerns. He said he plans to open a district office in Howard County, the newest part of his turf, next year if he is reelected.

Cummings and Salazar have sharply defined their differences on fiscal issues. Cummings backs a proposal by Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, to roll back tax cuts for those making more than $200,000. Salazar said he would not raise taxes on high earners but would revise the tax code to make it "fairer" to all income levels.

Rodino, who is working on Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, backs Nader's plan for repealing income taxes on people making less than $50,000 and said she would plug corporate tax loopholes.

Cummings has raised more than $700,000 and Salazar more than $90,000, including at least $10,000 of his own money. Rodino has not filed a campaign finance report, saying she has raised less than $5,000, the threshold amount for filing.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has won by overwhelming margins in the past, but Republicans think he is vulnerable in areas outside Baltimore.