WASHINGTON – After 6th District congressional challenger Scott Rolle spoke to the Frederick Kiwanis Club in late January, club President Jerry Jenkins’ mind was made up: He would vote for Rolle in the March 2 Republican primary.
He also expects Rolle to lose.
Incumbent Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Frederick will win, Jenkins said. “He’s too ingrained in the political mind.”
That sentiment seems to be shared by many Republicans across the district. For them, Rolle (rhymes with “volley”), 42, is a rising star in state Republican circles, but Bartlett, 77, is too well-known and too well-liked to be unseated in his bid for a seventh term.
“I think the voters will be receptive to a young Republican who is capable and can serve, but they also don’t want to unseat a sitting congressman,” said John Bambacus, an associate professor of political science at Frostburg State University.
Especially one like Bartlett, who Bambacus said has done “a careful study of the district, so he knows what people are interested in, and then pursues those interests.”
Rolle, the three-term state’s attorney from Frederick County, is not deterred.
“I’ve had many people say, ‘I voted for Bartlett because I never had a choice before, and now we have a choice with you,'” he said.
Rolle has been taking that message throughout the district, which stretches from Garrett to Harford County, campaigning so far in Accident, Oakland, parts of Allegany County, Hagerstown and Frederick.
He is also running — literally — through parts of the district, usually jogging a couple of miles around town centers with campaign staff and supporters.
Despite a sprained foot suffered during a family volleyball game, Rolle ran up and down Main Street in Westminster on a recent sunny but windy Saturday with seven supporters, while others stood at a busy intersection and held up signs.
After the run, Rolle talked with voters in local businesses, but not before asking the owners how business is faring. His campaign is focused on small business, in part because he comes from a family of small-business owners, including his own daughter, who runs a traveling sno-cone stand.
On the campaign trail, Rolle is both open and personable, moving easily from Baltimore Ravens chatter in a barbershop to music talk with teen-agers at a nearby music store, where he also sat to briefly play a guitar.
Despite the energy he brings to campaigning, Rolle is far behind in fund raising. Forms filed with the Federal Election Commission show Rolle had almost $23,000 on hand at the end of 2003, while Bartlett had more than $280,000.
Rolle also does not have the endorsement of one of his highest-profile friends, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The governor is backing Bartlett, saying in January that Rolle has a bright future in state politics, but that he is running “wrong race at the wrong time.”
Rolle shrugged off the endorsement. “To a certain extent, the incumbents support the incumbents,” Rolle said, adding that he would work with Ehrlich if elected.
With both candidates staking out similar, conservative stands on the issues, Bambacus said the campaign could become more of a “generational election” between Rolle and Bartlett.
But Bartlett, who called Rolle an “aggressive young man,” said he still feels like he did at age 50, bounding down steps on Capitol Hill instead of taking an escalator. He said his age helped him make friends early on with contemporaries who are now full committee chairs, including Reps. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Don Young, R-Alaska.
“One of the advantages of being older is that the friends you make frequently have seniority,” he said.
Aides said Bartlett’s wide range of experience — farmer, scientist and small business owner — gives him credibility and institutional knowledge that helps the district in Congress. His down-home and folksy demeanor belies a sharp mind and a resolve to adhere to a strict interpretation of the Constitution; he is sponsoring a bill to repeal part of the campaign finance reform laws because he believes it restricts free-speech rights.
Bartlett said “only the Lord knows” when he will retire.
“The truth is, the longer you’re here the more effective you are,” he said. “I want to continue serving my constituents. It’s very rewarding.”
Many observers agree that the seat is Bartlett’s until he decides to leave.
“Definitely Roscoe,” said Beatrice Crosco, president of the Southern Garrett County Republican Women’s Club. “The public knows him and he hasn’t really made a big mistake yet.”
Crosco said Bartlett is in the county at least four times a year for parades and political events. She has seen Rolle on television a few times, but said most people do not know him in Garrett County, where a personal touch is appreciated.
“He needs to appear more. We like candidates who know where Garrett County is,” Crosco said.
Bambacus found it “unusual” that Rolle would throw his hat into the ring against an incumbent like Bartlett: In two of the last three GOP primaries Bartlett ran unopposed and he took 78 percent of the vote in the 2000 primary, when he was challenged.
But Allegany County Republican Central Committee Chairman Bud Willetts said Rolle may be looking beyond the “uphill battle” in this election.
“He is not hurting himself at all if he’s unsuccessful,” said Willetts, who came away impressed after Rolle met with the central committee.
“One of the smartest things he is doing is showing respect for Bartlett,” said Willetts. “He talked about their differences, not bashed them. He’s running a positive campaign, not burning bridges.”
That positive campaigning also attracted Jenkins of Frederick.
“He didn’t want to throw dirt,” Jenkins said of Rolle. “He only wanted to talk about what he wanted to do. It was refreshing.”
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