updated 9/11/2006 3:48:44 PM ET 2006-09-11T19:48:44

Democrats and Republicans will choose nominees for hundreds of state, federal and county offices Tuesday in an election that will decide the political future of a Maryland political icon, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, and set the stage for what could be a radical change in the Maryland political landscape.

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Schaefer won his first election 55 years ago and has spent a lifetime in politics. But the 84-year-old comptroller's standing with voters has plummeted since the 2002 election, and he headed into election day involved in what appeared to be a tight battle with two Democratic opponents - Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens and state Delegate Peter Franchot from Montgomery County.

Matthew Crenson, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said Schaefer may have lost the race last week when he said Owens is getting fat and dresses like Mother Hubbard.

"That Mother Hubbard comment, I think, offended a lot of people," he said. "His attempt to turn it around by claiming age discrimination (by Owens) is pretty feeble."

Final tirade?
Donald Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County agreed, saying, "I think this last tirade might have just been enough to get him unelected."

Schaefer's exit from public life would not be voluntary. Two other longtime Democratic officials - Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran - decided to retire. If Schaefer should lose and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley should defeat Gov. Robert Ehrlich, all the statewide offices would change hands.

Ehrlich and O'Malley were unopposed for their party nominations, and the primary was only a prelude for what is expected to be an expensive, rancorous and potentially close contest between the Republican governor and Democratic mayor in November.

A rare open seat in the U.S. Senate drew a crowd of 18 Democrats and 14 Republicans with a handful of them running active campaigns.

The primary was mostly a warmup for Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a consensus choice of state and national Republican leaders who united behind him early as their best chance to steal a Senate seat away from Democrats.

Friendly campaign
On the Democratic side, the race seemed to settle into a contest between Rep. Ben Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, two longtime friends who ran an unusually positive campaign with none of the bitter rhetoric so often seen in political campaigns. Polls showed the two men running well ahead of three other candidates with active campaigns - Josh Rales, Dennis Rasmussen and Alan Lichtman.

Two Democrats - Douglas Gansler of Montgomery County and Stuart Simms of Baltimore - vied for the right to face off with Republican Scott Rolle, who was unopposed, in the race for attorney general in November.

Crowded ballot
In addition to the statewide offices, Democratic and Republican voters will be choosing nominees for an array of offices including eight congressional seats, 47 seats in the state Senate, 141 seats in the state House of Delegates, county councils, county commissioners, sheriffs, state's attorneys and circuit judges in Baltimore and five counties.

All Maryland voters will be casting ballots this year on Diebold touchscreen electronic voting machines, and Linda Lamone, state elections administrator, said the system "has been fully tested and rechecked and everything is in good, secure working order."

But skeptics question the security of the system, and a group called SAVEourVOTES asked Marylanders to report problems they see with machines to 410-381-1811.

Turnout expectations
Lamone predicted about one third of 1.7 million registered Democrats and approximately 900,000 registered Republicans will cast ballots by the time polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Almost half a million registered independents and members of minor parties will not be able to vote in the primary and will have to wait Nov. 7 to participate in the election process.

The turnout was 31 percent in the primary four years ago, but Lamone said it may be a little higher this year because of hotly contested races for Senate and in the 3rd congressional district, where there is no incumbent because Cardin gave up his seat to run for Congress.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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