The 2006 Howard County election season kicked into high gear last week as two thirty-something County Council members announced their campaigns to replace County Executive James N. Robey (D), who then declared his intention to run for the state Senate.

A race between two up-and-coming council members -- Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County), 34, and Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), 31 -- would be one of the most heated in recent years.

Unknown in the race is whether Board of Education Chairman Courtney Watson will take on Ulman for the Democratic nomination. Watson said she plans to announce in mid-December whether she will run for county executive, County Council or the school board. "I'm leaning towards running for a position in county government" instead of the school board, she said in an interview this week. "But it's such a close decision. . . . I'm really going to wait until the final moment to make the final decision."

The dueling declarations began last Thursday, when Merdon sent an e-mail inviting the news media to a Saturday event launching his campaign. The next day, Ulman preempted Merdon by sending a news release announcing his intention to run.

That didn't dampen the enthusiasm of an estimated 250 supporters who joined Merdon in Ellicott City over the weekend as he announced the twin themes of his campaign -- managing development and improving education -- and made an overture to the county's Democrats.

"This is not a race about party labels," he said Saturday. "In order to represent all the people, the county executive must transcend all party lines. And I have a record of doing exactly that. In fact, the district that elected me to the County Council two times is a Democrat district."

Merdon, vice president of a Fortune 500 technology company who lives in Ellicott City, proposed creating a Cabinet-level position responsible for education and advocated increasing starting salaries for new teachers.

He also said the county must have a more comprehensive and transparent zoning process than the one under Robey, whom he criticized as having a piecemeal approaching to land-use planning.

"The current administration shoots from the hip on zoning policy," he said. "It does not look at zoning as a whole."

Ulman, an estate planning lawyer who lives in River Hill, said he would formally launch his campaign, along with specific initiatives, in January.

He said he would focus on development -- "My record has demonstrated a willingness to stand up to special interests and big developers," he said -- and investment in education.

"I'm sure I will be criticized from the other side on taxes," Ulman said. "But the fact is that if you want the quality of life that Howard County citizens want and deserve, you have to invest in that."

The candidates also have different positions on Robey's proposal to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Ulman, whose brother is a three-time cancer survivor, said he strongly backs the measure. Merdon said he supports a provision that would grandfather in establishments that already allow smoking.

Although voter registration figures show Democrats outnumbering Republicans in Howard, GOP officials think Merdon can triumph by winning over independents and members of both parties.

"Chris is the closest thing to a bipartisan candidate that we've seen in a long time," said Howard M. Rensin, chairman of the county's Republican Party Central Committee.

Wendy Fiedler, chairman of the county's Democratic Party Central Committee, called Ulman a "good strong candidate . . . who will really bring in votes." A former independent, Harry M. Dunbar, has also said he will run for the Democratic nomination.

The Democratic and Republican primaries will be in September. County Republican leaders said they don't expect that Merdon will face serious opposition.

The other major political development involved Robey, who announced Monday that he would seek election next year to the Maryland Senate District 13 seat, challenging incumbent Sandra B. Schrader (R).

Robey, 64, is finishing his second term as county executive and is barred by term limits from reelection. At one point he considered retirement but decided he felt more comfortable seeking elected office, he said. "I'm not going to take this [race] for granted," said Robey, who hasn't selected a campaign manager and has done little fundraising. "It's going to be a difficult campaign."

Robey and his wife, Jane, do not live in District 13, which stretches from Clarksville to the Anne Arundel County line in southern Howard. They intend to sell their Ellicott City house next year and move to a condominium in Elkridge, within the district.

Robey made the announcement at the Oakland Mills Village Center surrounded by a throng of elected Democrats and prominent community leaders. His slogan, "a stronger voice, a better choice," tries to capitalize on his broad name recognition as county executive and former Howard police chief.

"By the very nature of my work in the county, it's given me a lot of exposure," he said.

Schrader has been preparing for a challenge. She held a fundraiser last month, which was attended by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Schrader, who highlights her 19 years of residency in the district, was appointed to the Senate seat in 2001, when Martin G. Madden (R) resigned. She was elected to a four-year term in 2002. Her campaign slogan then was "our neighbor, our friend, our senator."

"That's still who I am," she said.

Republican Christopher J. Merdon wants to improve education. Ken Ulman (D) backs a proposed ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Victoria Keelan, 7, awaits guests at an event to announce the candidacy of Christopher J. Merdon (R) for county executive.