When the Mary- land Democrats gathered inside a charmless Green- belt ballroom for their annual fall fundraiser in September, they heard speeches from, among others, U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Benjamin L. Cardin, and state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. The average age of this quintet: 67.6. The average of their tenure in elective office: 38.6 years.

Two of the party's most senior officials -- 83-year-old Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (an officeholder since the mid-1950s) and 61-year-old state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (17 years as Senate leader, 33 in the General Assembly overall) -- did not show up at the fundraiser, but both continue to cast long shadows over the political discourse in Maryland.

And Free State Democrats wonder why they are unable to generate excitement these days.

Nothing is wrong with senior service per se. The history books are full of venerable and venerated statesmen.

It just seems that with Maryland's Democrats, well-seasoned is about all you get. And as they set their sights on knocking off Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2006, the implications for the state's Democratic Party are potentially disastrous.

To be sure, the two leading Democratic candidates for governor, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, are accomplished pols who are only in their forties. But some of O'Malley's sheen seems to have worn off, and voters may not feel the need to trade one glib, telegenic Baltimore-area governor for another.

And Duncan, for all his achievements, seems as though he has been around forever (and has been openly running for governor since 1996).

Sometimes, though, the overall ticket is as important as the gubernatorial candidate.

In 2002 Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend proved to be a flawed nominee, and the relatively low standing of outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening did not help the Democrats' cause. Townsend was roundly criticized for naming retired Navy Adm. Charles R. Larson as her running mate. If only, the Monday morning quarterbacks opined, she had named someone who could have ginned up the Democratic base instead of an obscure public figure who had just switched parties. Then maybe, the Democrats would have been able to maintain their monopoly on the governor's mansion.

But what about the rest of the ticket? Running against the youthful Ehrlich and his trailblazing running mate, Michael S. Steele -- also a fresh face and the first African American nominee for statewide office in Maryland -- Democrats offered voters Townsend (flawed), Larson (middle-of-the-road white guy), Curran (old white guy) and Schaefer (older white guy).

If the Democrats had nominated a different candidate for comptroller or attorney general -- a newcomer, perhaps, or someone younger, or more dynamic, or more progressive or a minority -- Larson might not have seemed such a boneheaded choice.

In most states, jobs such as attorney general and comptroller are launching pads for young and ambitious politicians. In Maryland, have they become lifetime sinecures?

Heading into 2006, Democrats face the same problem they had in 2002.

If Sarbanes, already the longest-serving senator in Maryland history, seeks a sixth term, he will head the ticket. Schaefer has said he plans to run again.

Curran, who won his first political race when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, hasn't disclosed his plans. But all six of Maryland's Democratic members of Congress should be shoo-ins for reelection. Hoyer and Cardin have been in Congress for 23 and 17 years, respectively, and both were first elected to the state legislature in 1966.

How, given these candidates, do the Democrats sell themselves as the party of change?

-- Josh Kurtz

is the politics editor at Roll Call.

jdk@rollcall.com