Planet of the 8th

Mark Kennedy Shriver is all hustle: This is his virtue and his vice. Christopher Van Hollen is all ease, which is also his virtue and his vice.

Shriver, whose square and eerily familiar Kennedy features hang on a thin but lively frame, campaigns with the eagerness of a young politician with big-name support. Standing outside a Bethesda, Md.-area supermarket -- on the final Saturday of a tight primary campaign for the right to challenge eight-term U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R) in Maryland's 8th District -- he is quick to greet voters ("Hi, I'm Mark Shriver") and quick to pass them to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who has joined him ("Have you met President Sweeney?"). He exudes the desire and earnestness of youthful ambition; he also betrays the nervousness and impatience of someone who has always been around the game of politics but is not yet quite of it. He speaks rapidly and confidently, but when he loses concentration he can sound scattered and unfocused. The key to his campaign is convincing voters that his hustle means hard work and not con-job -- meaningful individual achievement over empty Kennedy charm.

Van Hollen, the son of a U.S. diplomat, has a long, open face, blond curls and blue eyes. Sauntering down the streets of downtown Bethesda, he is a patch of calm amid the bustle of volunteers funneling citizens his way. Where Shriver greets many at once, Van Hollen is almost reluctant to be campaigning at all. Trailing behind his staff, he greets a local ("Hi, I'm Christopher Van Hollen, I hope you will support me on Tuesday") and then stops to have a long conversation about education -- or traffic, or going to school in Pakistan -- until a volunteer finally drags him away. "Thanks," he calls over his shoulder, "things are going very well!" While some are charmed by the attention, to others he may seem as if he would be more comfortable schmoozing on a quiet street corner than maneuvering in the fast-paced halls of Congress. His calm is reassuring, but it also suggests a touch of bewilderment at the predicament of running against an unusually well-known opponent in such an important race.

Shriver and Van Hollen are running well ahead of the other candidates in this primary, including Ira Shapiro, a former Clinton administration trade negotiator, and Deborah Vollmer, a lawyer who once worked for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America.

Whoever wins earns the right in November to challenge one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House. Though Morella's liberal positions on abortion, women's health and the environment have made her popular with many Democrats, redistricting has added about 60,000 new Democrats -- nearly half of whom are minorities -- to what was already a Democratic district. And with a Republican in the White House, many Democrats who had in the past crossed party lines to vote for Morella may be reluctant to do so again.

The 8th is a "bellwether district," according to Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "If we take it back then we think we will take back the House."

As a result, the party has been at pains to keep the campaign civil and the winner as unsullied as possible. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) even wrote an unprecedented letter urging the candidates not to attack one another, which has made it difficult for differences to rise to the surface. Nonetheless, they are there.

Indeed, on paper Shriver should be running away with the primary. Beyond the Kennedy mystique, the Kennedy connections have opened doors. He has raised $2.5 million, more from out of state than in and more than any challenger in the country. He has the endorsements of the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, United Auto Workers and other unions, as well as the backing of the African-American, Asian-Pacific American and Hispanic-American Democratic clubs. The AFL-CIO has lent considerable organizational resources to Shriver's campaign, including 500 volunteers on primary day to make calls, go door to door, drop campaign literature and drive voters to the polls. U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), along with other Kennedys, has taped phone messages for Shriver, as have Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records in an attempt to appeal to black voters.

And yet Shriver is not necessarily running away with the primary. An Aug. 28 poll, conducted by The Gazette of Montgomery County, Md., shows him with a lead of nine points. But Van Hollen insists the race is closer. On Aug. 29, he released an internal poll that showed him with a four-point lead.

Perhaps the race remains close because Shriver, who has served for eight years as a state delegate, has yet to convince the public that there is a man behind the machine. Van Hollen, with four years as a state delegate and eight as a state senator, possesses more experience and has received endorsements from key newspapers, including The Washington Post and The (Baltimore) Sun. It is easier for Van Hollen to claim his accomplishments as his own. In an unusually well-informed district, this may resonate with many voters. And Van Hollen has been quick to paint Shriver's hustle as masking a lack of substance.

But beyond differences in personal style and experience, the endorsements may tell the true story of this primary and reflect a deeper divide within the Democratic Party. Van Hollen, who has the only environmentalist endorsements of the two candidates, is stronger on suburban middle-class issues such as education, the environment and health care. Shriver's endorsements reveal his appeal to labor and minorities, particularly with respect to issues such as wages, jobs and poverty. Standing in the middle as swing voters are senior citizens, whose greatest concerns are prescription drugs, Social Security and pension reform.

This split among voters may explain why the primary is still up in the air -- and points to a challenge that looms larger for the general election. Come November, the Democrats will have to convince these myriad groups that they are not simply an amalgamation of interests but a concrete party with a coherent program. Tuesday's primary in Maryland's 8th District is one of many hatching grounds for that vision. Whether it grows into a competitive message is a question that will be answered in November, by this bellwether district and others.