On his third visit to Charles County in four months, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan walked what is fast becoming a popular path for politicians preparing campaigns for 2006.

Duncan's statewide tour took him to La Plata on Monday, where officials showed off how local businesses and government leaders have rebuilt the town since the devastating tornado three years ago. The all-but-certain Democratic candidate for governor praised the town for its quick recovery.

Last month, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) walked the same streets as part of his own tour of Maryland's municipalities. Steele said his visit fulfilled a promise he made nearly two years ago, long before he launched an exploratory committee for a possible bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D). But the trip also provided a chance to mingle with potential voters.

Candidates from both parties see an opportunity in fast-growing Charles County. Although Democrats outpace Republicans in voter registration, 49 percent to 35 percent, election results have been mixed.

In the 2002 gubernatorial race, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) won Charles with 57 percent of the vote. But two years later, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry carried the county, 51 percent to 49 percent.

"Charles is clearly ripe ground for Democrats with its increasing population," Duncan said Monday.

Flanked by La Plata's mayor and town manager, Duncan discussed gas prices with a local service-station owner. He swapped ideas with a construction company executive about how to attract businesses to Charles so that fewer residents leave the county for work. And he reminisced about the downed trees he saw the day after the tornado when he arrived on the scene with Montgomery firefighters.

Duncan called himself a "natural fit" for Southern Maryland because the region is experiencing many of the same growing pains he has dealt with in Montgomery County.

"You need a governor who is responsive to the concerns of people down here," said Duncan, whose likely opponent for the Democratic nomination will be Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Duncan was joined Monday by Bill Fisher, the president of the Education Association of Charles County -- the local teachers union -- and Virginia Lee Benedict, chairman of the Charles County Democratic Central Committee.

After visiting the new North Point High School in Waldorf with two influential Charles Democrats -- state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton and Del. Murray D. Levy -- Duncan called the school "unbelievable."

"By your standards?" asked La Plata Town Manager Doug Miller, somewhat in disbelief because of the stellar reputation of Montgomery schools.

"It's better than anything we have," Duncan said. "The most advanced high school I've ever seen."

Even after the high praise, La Plata Mayor Gene Ambrogio held the official line, insisting Duncan "is not a candidate. He hasn't announced. He's just being a friend to La Plata."

Douglas M. Duncan, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, looks over a map of La Plata with Mayor Gene Ambrogio and Town Manager Doug Miller.From left, Bill Fisher, president of the Charles County teachers union, talks with Miller and Duncan in La Plata.