It is tradition for public officials who share a lectern to lavish praise on each other, often at length and usually forgettable, before they give a speech or take questions from reporters.

But ears perked up last week at the verbal valentine County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) gave to a top school official at the announcement of a $126 million school-repair initiative.

First at the microphone during the event at Arrowhead Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, interim schools chief Howard A. Burnett described Johnson as "the best county executive in the United States." The superlative was routine and ordinarily would draw no notice.

Burnett, who took over the 199-school system after Andre J. Hornsby resigned in May, is a low-key school insider who has said repeatedly that he is not seeking the chief executive post on a permanent basis.

Then Johnson stepped up. He thanked Burnett for his remarks but offered one quibble. "On the 'interim,' " Johnson said. "I don't like that word 'interim.' I'm hoping one of these days that'll be dropped from your title."

County spokesman James P. Keary and school system spokesman John White both said afterward that it was the first time they had heard Johnson praise Burnett in such a manner. Johnson's words could draw attention from the school board members who have launched a search for a new chief and hope to pick one early next year.

Burnett, meanwhile, laughed it off. "He says that every chance he gets," Burnett said. "I've heard it before from him."

Burnett said he has told Johnson to desist from such balloon-floating. And he insisted that he is looking to step down shortly after the board names a successor. His plan is to be gone by April 1. Of course, Burnett's original agreement was to hold the interim post for 12 weeks. That period lapsed in August.

Cordial Challengers

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) was shaking hands and kissing cheeks, gestures he had been making all week, when he and Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) found themselves standing at the same table at a recent gala.

Cardin had just finished saying hello to Del. Carolyn Howard (D-Prince George's) when Steele was about to greet her.

Steele rushed to extend his hand.

"Congratulations," Cardin said. "You've had a busy week."

"Thank you. Yes, I've had a long week," said Steele, who recently announced his campaign for U.S. Senate.

The exchange at the gala for the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland was the first between the two men -- who want to replace retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) -- since Steele officially announced his candidacy.

Steele would later cross paths with Kweisi Mfume, who was also attending the event at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore.

Several partygoers said they could feel the electricity of the campaign in the air.

"It's a love fest," Howard said after getting her handshake from Cardin and a kiss from Steele. "Can't you just feel it?"

Nowhere to Run

Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) has spent a third of his life in public office.

So about this time of year he would normally be gearing up a reelection bid.

But these days, because of term limits and a failed effort to enlarge the County Council by two at-large seats, Hendershot, 61, finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

He still wants to be a candidate, but technically he doesn't have an office to make a run for.

The County Council is out because he is in the final year of a two-term limit on the County Council. The school board may be in, but the General Assembly has yet to decide how the county's new school board will be configured.

But that doesn't mean Hendershot isn't raising money. Two weeks ago he held a fundraiser.

It was for the "might" campaign.

He might run for school board. His wife, Florence, a teacher, might run for County Council.

"At this moment it remains to be seen," Hendershot said recently. "People supported me in the hope that I will have a future in our county politics, and perhaps my wife will as well."

Hendershot campaigned last year to change the county charter by expanding the nine-member council and easing the term-limit restriction that voters imposed on the county a dozen years ago. The initiative was overwhelmingly defeated.

Regardless of what he decides to do, Hendershot said it is a guarantee that he will be on the campaign trail next year. "My principal interest is to do everything I can to get Doug Duncan elected governor next year," he said.