In the brutally competitive business of hosting conventions, cities everywhere are rolling out slogans.

For many, the right pitch is easy to come by. Washington touts patriotism: "The American Experience." Las Vegas promises naughty fun: "What happens here stays here." San Diego figures it can't go wrong with the weather: "Come for the convention. Stay for the vacation."

And then there's Baltimore.

To search for just the right words, the city has formed a Repositioning Task Force and hired a San Francisco agency that specializes in "branding" products. No doubt there's plenty to work with, including national-caliber museums, an immensely popular waterfront and charming old neighborhoods. The challenge is to tout the city's assets without ignoring its gritty, self-deprecating character. If it's too hyped up, officials worry, the promotion may become a punch line.

Years ago, for example, residents disposed of one motto, "The City That Reads," by making it "The City That Bleeds." Even before the new catchphrase is unveiled, locals are forming ideas of their own:

"Baltimore: Duck!" a shopkeeper said.

"Baltimore: We're Not Gary," an executive security consultant offered.

"Baltimore: Coming Right Along," a man atop a Fells Point barstool said.

Those three authors were quick to say they liked living in Baltimore. It's a mind-set hardly lost on Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum and chairman of the task force.

"This is a town of Elvis fan clubs," Vikan said.

"I think the city will recognize itself in this."

Tourism officials have committed a half-million dollars to the effort, including fees to consultant Landor Associates, whose clients include Altoids, the hip breath mints, and oil giant BP, which sought to be positioned as a friend of the environment.

The stakes are higher than civic pride. Conventions and meetings are an estimated $122 billion-a-year industry, and cities fight hard to bring in business. Baltimore has spent millions on convention space yet struggles to keep pace with cities such as Washington. Officials say part of the problem is that the city lacks a message that resonates with convention planners.

The branding campaign probably will be accompanied by advertisements and aimed at tourists and conventioneers.

It's important that residents buy into the catchphrase. One survey showed that 44 percent of Baltimore's visitors see relatives or friends when they come. If these hosts, along with cabdrivers and bellhops, are smirking, then the slogan may fail.

City officials hope the eclectic Vikan (pronounced "vee-con") can help. He is a Princeton-trained scholar of Byzantine art who curses, a classical music buff who lectures on pilgrimages to Graceland. His own museum has been nationally praised.

When Vikan arrived at the Walters from Washington in 1985, Baltimore was in its fourth straight decade of population decline. The owner of the Colts had recently packed up and moved the football team to Indianapolis in the dead of night.

Then-mayor William Donald Schaefer had his rallying cry: "Baltimore is Best." He was followed by Kurt L. Schmoke, who rolled out "The City That Reads" and "Catch the Spirit."

Through the 1990s, Baltimore was plagued with high murder rates and low literacy levels. Other cities had similar problems. But longtime Baltimoreans seemed to deal with it in part by laughing.

"I think a self-deprecating humor is part of the collective psyche of Baltimore," said James McGee, former director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt hospital outside Baltimore.

Starting in 2000, the number of murders dipped below 300 for the first time since 1989. Young professionals were buying and renovating old rowhouses. Baltimore's brash young mayor, Martin O'Malley, posted "The Greatest City in America" on the main page of the city's Web site and on outdoor benches.

Even Schaefer thought it was a bit much, telling the mayor that "it was over the top," O'Malley said.

O'Malley stressed that "Greatest City," unlike the convention and tourism campaign, was aimed at residents, who needed to hear elevated expectations. "Baltimore is a town of very little pretense," he said. "The downside of that pathological modesty is that for years we came to really doubt the power that we had in one another."

A laudable goal. But still . . .

"I mean, obviously, this isn't the greatest city in America," Richard Byrd, 59, said recently while sitting on one of those benches at a downtown corner, waiting for a bus.

The more Byrd talked, the more he headed down parallel tracks: how much he enjoyed making fun of Baltimore, how much he enjoyed living in Baltimore. A retired city worker, he recently sold a rowhouse near Johns Hopkins University for double what he could have made five years ago.

Byrd said areas where tourists are likely to go are safer than in years past. Asked if he had ever been mugged, he said once, about 30 years ago at a bus stop. He forked over $1.60 to the robber, who returned a brief time later with a small rebate. "Here, man," Byrd remembered the gunman saying. "Bus fare."

Vikan started feeling confident in Baltimore's future 18 months ago. That's when he noted population losses leveling off and homes going for $800,000 in the 180-year-old neighborhood surrounding his museum.

He began leading the Repositioning Task Force last year. From the beginning, he said, there was creativity in Landor's methods. He remembered joining 30 city leaders in a hotel conference room, where Landor put them into small groups to go through photographs and select ones that were metaphors for Baltimore.

Vikan's group picked a shot of an old Volkswagen Bug: "Quirky, charming," he said. For a food image, the group selected a 15-inch-tall sandwich with sauerkraut, sausage, a lobster tail and a fish with its head still on. "Just this implausible sandwich," Vikan said. "Rich, diverse, sort of funny."

Landor may be picking up on this. In a PowerPoint presentation Nov. 7 to the Baltimore City Council, the Landor consultant rattled off self-reported characteristics of residents: off-kilter, bizarre, resilient, unpretentious, diverse. But Landor may want to tread lightly while pushing parts of the city where gritty charm can turn into too much grit.

Take the working-class neighborhood of Hampden, home to antiques shops and funky stores that can steal the afternoon of a curious tourist. On a recent Sunday, inside Avenue Antiques, local photographer Chase Lisbon, 30, stopped in. With him was Melissa Stallard, an out-of-town guest and rural Tennessee native enjoying her stay.

Suddenly, out on the sidewalk, a baggy-clothed teenage girl began screaming at a baggy-clothed teenage boy in a drop-dead "Bawlamer" accent: "I hadda go to the 'mergency room but I couldden getta holda you so I couldden go!"

"Is that the Baltimore accent I've heard about?" Stallard asked.

Yes it was.

Did the behavior surprise her?

"Coming from Appalachia, it's not foreign," she said. "It is foreign in an urban environment."

Gary Vikan leads a task force that is working on a slogan to lure tourists and conventions to Baltimore. Words that Vikan has associated with the city: quirky, charming, diverse, sort of funny.