A recent Saturday found Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin strolling past barbecue booths and sheep-shearing tents at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, making small talk with strangers about the oppressive heat and spreading the word about his 2006 U.S. Senate bid.

The outing was part of the Baltimore Democrat's Fair Shake for Maryland Tour, a string of appearances during the late-summer fair season.

Cardin was flanked by supporters wearing T-shirts that proclaimed "Everyone deserves a fair shake," and he later mused about what his campaign would do with them after the tour ends in a few weeks.

An aide had a ready answer: "Use them again next year."

Indeed, before votes are cast in Maryland's next elections, another fair season will come and go. But Cardin is hardly alone in his early campaign maneuverings. The major candidates in both of Maryland's marquee races next year -- for Senate and governor -- have been running for months.

They are part of a phenomenon not unlike retailing, in which pitches for the December holiday season seem to start earlier each year. In modern politics, it is never too early to start a campaign, it seems. That was evident in the last presidential election as Democrats started making pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two nominating states, just months after President Bush was sworn in.

In Maryland this go-round, "we're talking about a campaign that will take us through two Labor Days before people even get to vote," said Dan Rupli, a Frederick lawyer who is advising another Senate candidate, former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume.

As campaigns become more expensive, candidates across the country are feeling the need to start raising money sooner. And as races become more sophisticated -- drawing on technology to boost turnout and tailor messages -- there is more for candidates to do.

In Maryland, there was added incentive to get in early.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) announced in March that he would not seek a sixth term, creating the first open Senate race in Maryland in two decades. Mfume waited just three days to jump into the Democratic race to succeed him. Cardin made his bid official five weeks later.

In the governor's race, Democrats are eager to unseat the first elected Republican governor in a generation, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Although no one has officially announced a bid, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan are candidates in all but name. Both are raising money and moving around the state, trying to become better known outside their home regions. Both have hired campaign managers and other key staff members.

Ehrlich has not been as overt in his politicking, but it is clear that he is seeking reelection, as evidenced by fundraisers such as one last month that featured first lady Laura Bush.

In the Senate race, Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele of Prince George's County, is in the midst of an exploratory bid. If he runs, he is expected to have little opposition for the Republican nomination. His most visible campaign activity in recent weeks has been a fundraiser featuring Karl Rove, President Bush's political guru.

For the Democrats, in particular, the long run-up to the September 2006 primary creates some challenges -- namely, how to engage a public that is not yet ready to pay attention. Mfume, for example, has set up a blog on his Web site for supporters to exchange tidbits about his campaign. As of earlier this week, the most recent entry was from June.

Cardin has his Fair Shake tour, but other candidates have also employed gimmicks to market themselves in the early stages. In an e-mail to supporters, an Mfume adviser dubbed the recent months his "summer of hope."

Duncan has embarked on a "listening and learning" tour that will take him to all of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions. At a recent stop at the Crab Cake Factory in Anne Arundel County, he dwelled on his upbringing in a family of 13 children for as long as he did on any policy issues. Duncan has also been aggressively courting fellow elected officials, throwing parties at separate gatherings of municipal and county officials this summer in Ocean City.

And though neither is a declared candidate, Duncan and O'Malley have started talking to potential running mates. Duncan lunched last week with Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), and speculation about O'Malley's choice has focused on Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney in Prince George's County. Democrat-heavy Prince George's is expected to be a key battleground in the primary.

Like other candidates, O'Malley is using the early months to build a network of volunteers. The early recruits include Arnie Gordon, a retired Internal Revenue Service worker who grew up in the Bronx. Gordon spent much of a recent Saturday promoting the mayor at the Montgomery fair.

Wearing a sweat-soaked "Organizing Montgomery for O'Malley" T-shirt and a Yankees baseball cap, Gordon carried a clipboard and peddled neon-green O'Malley stickers to anyone -- including children -- who looked like he or she might take one.

"Congratulations," he proclaimed as the Fair Princess strolled by on the midway. "Would you like an O'Malley sticker?"

Later, Gordon manned an entrance, greeting fair-goers arriving on shuttle buses with stickers and copies of a Time magazine article that called O'Malley one of the nation's five best big-city mayors.

"It's almost like subliminal advertising, this early in the campaign," Gordon said. Almost no one is thinking about the governor's race, he acknowledged, but when the time comes, O'Malley will seem a more familiar name.

Cardin arrived at the event a few hours later. "Ben Cardin, I'm running for Senate," he said repeatedly as he made his way down the midway with an extended hand.

Most everyone was polite, but Cardin found himself having to explain to some fair-goers not only that he is running for Senate, but that he has been a Democratic congressman for 18 years.

There was the occasional payoff, though, such as running into Kirt Suomela by the dairy barn. He explained to Cardin that he is a big fan of Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County, a Democrat who flirted with running for the Senate but decided not to. That left him looking for another candidate to support.

"I'm glad he's down here," Suomela, an environmental engineer from Bethesda, said after Cardin moved on. "It's an important part of politics, I think, shaking people's hands. I didn't even know what his face looked like."

Cardin said the campaign's early start makes such interaction with voters possible.

"The length of the campaign gives you the opportunity to do this," he said. "If this were a short campaign, it would be harder to justify doing all the grass roots."

His chief opponent, Mfume, cited another benefit of the long campaign: It has given him time to shake off the rust.

It had been a decade since he last sought elected office, and his first few months in the race were sluggish, he said. After spending the past six months dropping in on community events, Mfume is planning a major speech for Sept. 12 -- one year before the primary date -- to reintroduce himself as a candidate. "It can take awhile to get your groove back," he said.

By that time, he and Cardin are likely to have more company. A Baltimore community activist and perennial candidate, Robert Kaufman, has declared a bid, and a half-dozen other Democrats are looking at the race.

Among them are forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren -- sister of Greta Van Susteren, host of a Fox News public affairs program -- and American University historian Allan Lichtman, both Montgomery County residents. Susteren plans to announce her candidacy today, Lichtman this month. Joshua Rales, a Montgomery County businessman who until recently considered himself a Republican, has hired a campaign manager and communications firm for a possible bid in the Democratic primary.

All three, it seems, believe there is still plenty of time to jump in.

Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's Fair Shake for Maryland Tour has coincided with fair season. Here, Cardin visits a barbecue restaurant in Laurel last month.Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), center, is a candidate for governor in all but name.Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) is also raising money for a gubernatorial bid and traveling the state.Kweisi Mfume, shown in Clinton in April, said the long campaign has let him shake off rust at the outset of his U.S. Senate bid. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is expected to be the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. Cardin, who is running for the U.S. Senate, said the early start has allowed for more grass-roots campaign efforts.Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is expected to run for reelection. He has had fundraisers, including one last month that featured first lady Laura Bush.