A June 26 Metro article incorrectly described Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley as the eldest of six children. He is the eldest son, but two sisters are older. (Published 6/29/2005)

As Martin O'Malley stepped up to address a gathering of Democratic activists last week in Silver Spring, he introduced himself as "probably the first native of Montgomery County elected mayor of Baltimore," adding to great laughter: "Baltimore doesn't know that yet."

O'Malley, whose parents live in Rockville, did not exactly trumpet his upbringing during his rise to power in Baltimore. In fact, a lengthy biography on his official mayoral Web site makes no mention of where he lived until enrolling in the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore.

Now that he is campaigning for governor, O'Malley has started vigorously re-embracing his roots in Montgomery, home to his primary Democratic rival, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

The appearance before the Greater Silver Spring Democratic Club was O'Malley's third foray into Montgomery in as many weeks. Nearly 150 people packed a church basement ringed with signs that said, "Organizing Montgomery for O'Malley."

O'Malley had just spent the afternoon in what he described as his "old stomping grounds" of Rockville, visiting the mayor of the city -- an office Duncan once held. As O'Malley and Mayor Larry Giammo walked to a construction site with the media in tow, O'Malley pointed out his father's longtime law office.

O'Malley is trying to make inroads in a county that has elected Duncan three times. If O'Malley succeeds to a significant degree, that could be devastating to Duncan's candidacy. But O'Malley's strategists also are looking to the 2006 general election -- scheduled just two months after the Democratic primary -- in which turnout in the heavily Democratic county will be essential for victory.

"It's clear that Montgomery County has the largest number of general-election votes in Maryland by far, and that potential was not fully mined in the last election by Democrats," said Mark Woodard, chairman of the Silver Spring club, referring to then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's 2002 loss to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

"You've got to think the county executive is going to do very well in Montgomery County" in a Democratic primary, said Woodard, who noted that he remains neutral in the race. "But Mayor O'Malley also has a large number of supporters who are going to organize and work very hard. That's what campaigns are about."

Duncan's camp has tried to appear nonchalant about O'Malley's well-attended incursions, noting that Duncan is making frequent trips to Baltimore to court support, including a lunch meeting last week with Baltimore City Council member Mary Pat Clarke.

"Obviously, the mayor of Baltimore is recognizing the new realities of Maryland politics, where the balance of power is shifting to Montgomery County and the counties around it," said Scott Arceneaux, Duncan's campaign manager. "But Doug clearly has a strong base here."

Duncan boosters also question how well some of O'Malley's positions, particularly his support for legalizing slot-machine gambling at certain racetracks, will play in Montgomery.

Since the last time a Baltimore mayor became governor -- William Donald Schaefer (D) in 1986 -- Prince George's and Montgomery counties have leapfrogged ahead of Baltimore in numbers of registered Democrats.

But O'Malley is far better known than Duncan in the suburban counties surrounding Baltimore, and early primary polls show the mayor having sizable leads statewide.

O'Malley said he has found Montgomery voters to be receptive and eager to learn more about him during recent visits. "They already know the other two," he said of Ehrlich and Duncan.

The mayor acknowledged that most Montgomery voters do not seem to know about his background, which he can share to help overcome a "geographic phobia" that exists among some of the state's jurisdictions, he said.

O'Malley, the eldest of six children, lived in Bethesda until he was 8, when the birth of twin siblings prompted his family's move to a bigger house in Rockville. O'Malley told reporters last week that he tries to get his children to their grandparents' home often.

"My mother will probably demand a correction, but we try to get down there every couple of weeks," he said.

Several of O'Malley's boyhood friends have volunteered for the campaign, including Libby Mullin, 36, who said she first voted for O'Malley when he ran for student council president in grade school against her older brother. She is helping O'Malley make introductions in Montgomery.

Rachael Holstine, who moved to the county from Ohio two years ago, is volunteering for O'Malley. Holstine, 59, said she decided to work on O'Malley's campaign after seeing him speak and being impressed by his charm and sincerity.

"I don't think Duncan's a slam-dunk" in Montgomery, said Holstine, who works in human resources for a public policy research company. "He's done a very good job, but I believe that the mayor has had to work with issues that are more relevant to the state. Montgomery County is not a microcosm of Maryland."

Certainly not everyone who came to check out O'Malley last week in Silver Spring left ready to support him.

Joseph Eyong, 42, politely demurred when an O'Malley volunteer approached him about joining the mayor's mailing list. When O'Malley entered the room moments later, though, Eyong positioned himself to shake hands with the mayor and handed a camera to a friend to capture the moment.

Eyong, who works for a nonprofit organization that aids immigrants, said he was impressed with O'Malley's remarks, though he found the mayor's responses to some audience members' questions to be surprisingly vague.

"He has charisma, but Duncan is a serious person," said Eyong, who said he was not prepared to support either candidate. "Duncan has done so much for Montgomery County."

O'Malley's embrace of Montgomery is not without some risk back in Baltimore.

In January, he appeared on radio station WTOP to talk about "laying the groundwork" for his gubernatorial bid.

"Let's ask a little question about your background," said the host, Mark Plotkin, at the top of the show. "You really didn't grow up in Baltimore. You grew up in Montgomery County?"

"Yes," O'Malley replied. "We only say that on airwaves that don't reach the Baltimore metropolitan market."

A few hours later, the quip was airing repeatedly on WBAL radio in Baltimore. Talk-show host Chip Franklin predicted that the comment would be repeated over and over during the campaign, to O'Malley's detriment.

That prospect did not seem to weigh on the mayor last week. Before leaving Baltimore for Montgomery, O'Malley was asked by a Baltimore reporter why he was heading for "Duncan's home turf."

"Actually, it's my home turf," O'Malley said with a smile.