Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was delivering his stump speech to an audience in Salisbury, recounting the benefits of public schools, when Chuck Lutz leaned over and asked his neighbors, "Is he a schoolteacher?"
Most of the members gathered for the Wicomico County Democratic Club meeting Wednesday evening knew that Duncan was a county executive and an all-but-declared candidate for governor of Maryland.
But Lutz's question highlights Duncan's difficulty as he gears up to take on the better-known Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore, in next year's Democratic primary.
"The challenge I have is, half the state doesn't know who I am yet," Duncan said in an interview before his speech on the Eastern Shore.
Duncan is hoping to expand his name recognition and build a grass-roots network of loyal supporters by spending a day campaigning in every Maryland county between now and Sept. 1. That commitment means Duncan will be out of Montgomery at least two days a week. The tour of 23 counties and Baltimore began Wednesday in Wicomico.
Besides the speech on education, Duncan visited with Eastern Shore newspaper editors and labor leaders, gave television interviews and shared a home-cooked meal of ham and macaroni and cheese with two dozen Democratic activists.
Duncan's state tour comes on top of a feverish schedule he plans to maintain this summer in voter-rich Prince George's County and the Baltimore area, where on average he already spends one day a week. Last night, he hosted a low-cost barbecue fundraiser in Mitchellville that drew as many as 500 people. He attends a Sunday church service in Prince George's nearly every week.
The county executive, who is putting the final touches on his campaign team, already has a staffer who spends his days trailing O'Malley with a camcorder. And yesterday, before the barbecue in Prince George's, Duncan took the train to New York to woo national labor leaders.
Duncan said his summer politicking is taking on greater urgency because he expects the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to move next year's primary up from September to June. Some Democratic leaders said the change would allow the party's nominee more time to recoup before taking on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
"It's a year away, so I am moving full speed ahead," Duncan said of a June primary.
Democrats across the state said Duncan's face time with party activists -- such as his frequent visits to teachers union and parent-teacher association meetings -- may be paying off.
"A lot of people are trying to close the race down early, but I don't think it is over yet," said Greg Pecoraro, a longtime Democratic activist from Carroll County, who has yet to endorse either candidate. "Clearly, Doug has some challenges getting known around the state and broadening his base, but I think he has been working very hard at getting to know activists and party people -- the people you need to win primaries."
Pollster Patrick E. Gonzales, who notes that 45 percent of voters in Maryland Democratic primaries live in Baltimore and surrounding counties, said he thinks Duncan is making inroads but still operates in O'Malley's shadow.
In an April poll for the Baltimore Sun, Potomac Inc. found O'Malley beating Duncan 45 percent to 25 percent among likely voters.
O'Malley, who like Duncan has not formally announced his candidacy, will enter the race with several built-in advantages, party officials said. Most notably, O'Malley has been a constant presence on Baltimore television news, which reaches more than half the state.
"I think most people recognize running the city, any big city, is just a really tough job, and I think they feel Martin has done a good job at it," said Jim Voss, a longtime political boss in Caroline County who is backing O'Malley.
But party activists and political experts said they see potential openings for Duncan.
"O'Malley is a rock star. He's young and he's good-looking. He's in a band," said Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. "Duncan . . . is a big man, and he does not have rock star charisma. But what he projects is the image of a smart, competent person in politics."
In some ways, party leaders said Duncan, 49, could be helped by the experience of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in her 2002 campaign against Ehrlich. Townsend, who had high name recognition and was viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party, scared other Democrats out of the primary. But Townsend couldn't convince voters in the general election that she was strong leader.
"Martin is a celebrity, but after what happened to Kathleen's campaign, people are leery of that," said Mary Jo Neville, a Howard County activist and Duncan supporter. "They want to dig a little deeper and see what else is there."
O'Malley, as he runs statewide, is expected to face questions about Baltimore's persistent problems with crime and flagging schools.
In his speeches, Duncan touts his leadership skills, detailing how -- a week after taking office in 1994 -- he managed to get a smoldering dump fire extinguished that had burned for a month in North Potomac. He then talks about his efforts to redevelop Silver Spring and his record as county executive.
Duncan often takes a veiled swipe at O'Malley, noting how students in Montgomery County boast high SAT scores and pointing out that nearly half the students in Baltimore do not graduate.
But while O'Malley faces challenges as a big-city mayor, Duncan's ties to Montgomery, which some Marylanders view as affluent and arrogant, could be a hindrance as well.
When Duncan mentioned in Salisbury that he grew up in Rockville, one woman shouted, "We won't hold that against you."