As the 38-foot camper emblazoned with billboard-size campaign banners trundled past granaries and cornfields on Maryland's Eastern Shore yesterday, Barbara Duncan sat in one of the RV's captain's chairs, doubled over in hysterics.
She and her 13-year-old daughter, Conor, had a laptop open and were scrolling through the family Web log, which was launched last week when Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) formally began campaigning for governor.
The site, www.duncansfordoug.com, was supposed to be an outlet for Duncan's expansive family -- his 12 brothers and sisters, five children and 38 nieces and nephews -- to share their thoughts and reflections about the campaign they all were embarking upon together. It turns out, it also was fast becoming a forum for some good-natured family ribbing.
From Duncan's formal announcement in Rockville on Thursday, the site reports dryly, "Here's a picture of Doug's siblings walking out of the house just before Doug's speech." Pictured instead is a lineup of sumo wrestlers in traditional garb, stomachs bulging.
Duncan has always joked that his family was so large that his modest, four-bedroom boyhood home made up its own political precinct. But for the first time since he ran for Rockville City Council 23 years ago, Duncan intends his family to be an integral part of his campaign.
"They've been involved in the past, but not this way," he said.
When Duncan embarked on a 1,350-mile driving tour through Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore last week, the caravan at times felt more like a family road trip than a campaign, with Barbara and Conor in the RV and Duncan's sons, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and 79-year-old mother, Ellie Duncan, following behind.
They trailed the candidate from Rockville to Hyattsville to Baltimore to Annapolis, creating cameos for themselves during his stump speech. When he would describe the modest house "where a couch sometimes doubled as a bed," his sister Eleanor M. Lide of Rockville would shout out, "One bathroom!"
When speaking to 700 teachers at their union convention in Ocean City, he emphasized his father's work as a language instructor. Over crab cakes with party central committee members at Snapper's Waterfront Cafe in Cambridge, he found a pointed way to invoke his family and take a jab at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), an only child, who has had a penchant for heated partisan battles with the state's Democratic legislature.
"When you grow up with 12 brothers and sisters and you try to go it alone, and pick fights, you learn fast you're never going to make it," Duncan said. "You learn how to bring people together."
Duncan said it's all part of introducing himself to Maryland. "I didn't need to do this in Rockville, or really in Montgomery County, because everybody knew us."
But there are clear political motives, too. Duncan's advisers believe his humble origins present an antidote to that political albatross that is Montgomery County -- a place viewed by much of the state as elitist, wealthy and more psychically aligned with Washington than with any part of Maryland.
Those perceptions largely explain why the county has never produced an elected governor, said Tracey Sampson, a member of the Cecil County Democratic Central Committee, who hosted Duncan at the Jack and Helen's Diner in Chesapeake City yesterday. "That's the stuff that matters to people," she said. "Yes, he's from a big, rich county. But when you meet him, and you hear where he comes from, it makes a big difference."
When Duncan decided to run for county executive in 1994, he sat his children down in the den, and he and his wife, Barbara, explained to them what they might expect during the campaign.
"They listened to everything we said, and their only response was, 'When you're done, can we get cable?' " Duncan deadpanned.
Barbara Duncan, who has kept a very low profile during her husband's political career, said the children all understand this campaign will be different -- tougher on everyone. "I just told them, you should never be disappointed in your dad because of a headline or because of something you see on television," she said.
It helps that the children are older now, she said, and in many ways better able to understand the gravity of a campaign. Though on the road, there are still moments where the candidate and his wife must simply be parents.
As when Conor, who has spent much of the ride along the byways of rural Maryland wearing headphones, lost in Tim McGraw, proposed getting her own room at the hotel in Ocean City. ("Not a chance," Barbara replied.) Or when Thomas, 16, thought about breaking away from the campaign trail to spend time with friends. ("If he's going to miss school, it's going to be to campaign," his father declared.) Or when both parents paused, as the RV idled in an Elkton parking lot, to wish Thomas luck on his upcoming football game for Georgetown Prep. (They won, 15-10, and Thomas scored a touchdown on a kickoff return.)
Duncan says the link between family and politics started with his mother, who took him along to hand out fliers for the Democratic Party when he was in elementary school. And there was a reminder of that yesterday, when Duncan was pulled aside by a stranger while touring Chestertown's business district under gray skies.
The stranger was Connie Goodwin, 79, who handed Duncan an envelope wrapped in a Ziploc bag. Inside was the program from a piano recital at Notre Dame High School, dated Sunday, May 18, 1941. Listed as playing a piece by Mendelssohn called "Spring Song" together were Goodwin and Eleanor Hughes, Duncan's mother.
"Oh, my gosh!" Duncan gasped, as he gingerly opened the yellowing parchment to read the program and then thanked her for the gesture. "Can I give you a hug?"
After Goodwin parted, Duncan turned to his wife. "You know what?" he said. "This has got to go on [the Web site] duncansfordoug."