But even as its population has diminished, Baltimore city has retained its political sway—producing four of the last nine elected governors, three of whom were former Baltimore mayors. Another two, both Republicans, emerged from an expanding Baltimore County, while the rapidly growing Washington suburbs were shut out, except for the election of Glendening in 1994.

Meanwhile Montgomery County’s size and economic clout have expanded in recent decades, but its political power has lagged. Two longtime factors that have held the county back—its status as primarily a bedroom community for the District of Columbia, and the heavily transient nature of its residents—have changed dramatically in recent years, however. The county increasingly has become a workplace destination, and a second generation of residents has emerged. The latter includes the offspring of many who first moved to the county as the size of the federal government mushroomed a generation ago.

Area politicians are nearly unanimous in pointing to another persistent factor underlying Montgomery’s longtime drought in state politics: the nature of the Baltimore and D.C. media markets.

The former has focused heavily on issues in Annapolis and statewide, while the Washington media market is split among the District of Columbia, suburban Virginia and Maryland.

“With that fracture, you’re only going to get so many Maryland political stories out of the D.C. media market, whereas you’re going to hear much more politically out of the Baltimore media market,” observes Ulman, the potential gubernatorial contender from Howard County. “It does give an opportunity for somebody to be covered more.”

Historically, the proximity to the nation’s capital has often resulted in county residents’ singular focus on the White House, Congress and federal bureaucracy, to the near exclusion of issues in Annapolis. And then there’s the long-held perception elsewhere in the state that Montgomery County residents are, well, different.

“The biggest myth that seemed to be out there was [that] Montgomery’s roads were paved in gold,” chuckles Gansler, who grew up in Chevy Chase. “Yet the reality is that it’s the most diverse jurisdiction in Maryland.”

When he was first elected to the General Assembly in 1986, Frosh recalls, “people counseled me when I got to Annapolis, ‘Don’t be one of those goofballs from Montgomery County.’”

“The rap on Montgomery and Prince George’s is that they don’t care about the rest of the state,” says Donald Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “The fact that both Franchot and Gansler got elected statewide twice [in 2006 and 2010] is certainly going to help. But it’s going to take a continued presence of officeholders from Montgomery and Prince George’s at the state level to dispel that notion.”

It’s late August, and a backyard gathering at state Delegate Bill Frick’s Bethesda home has the appearance of a dry run for a gubernatorial primary debate.

Gansler, who co-chaired the Obama campaign in the state in 2008, is tossing political red meat as he seeks to rev up the crowd of Young Democrats of Maryland for the president’s 2012 re-election. “It’s an incredibly woeful collection of human beings who are running for president in the Republican Party this time,” he declares to widespread laughter.

He’s followed later by Brown, who vows that a forthcoming legislative session will redraw the state’s congressional district map to pick up another Democratic seat. “Are we a little bit overaggressive? Are we greedy? Hell, yeah, we are,” he shouts to thunderous applause.

Sandwiched between them is Franchot, who speaks longer than his potential rivals and in more muted terms. “As much as I’m a Democrat and proud of my party, I’m saying to people everywhere that it’s time to pull together, put state over party…and see where we can come together to help the private economy of Maryland,” he says.

Franchot increasingly uses similar talking points. Five years after winning a primary in which he derided his opponents as “Ehrlich Democrats”—Republicans in sheep’s clothing—Franchot is attracting praise from Republicans for his role as a “fiscal watchdog.” He cautions about raising taxes in the current economy, and preaches greater governmental efficiency vs. higher taxes or “draconian cuts” in services.

“Yes, I have become much more moderate and cautious about fiscal issues,” replies the former public interest attorney when asked if this is a kinder, gentler Peter Franchot. “I think what you’re seeing is a sea change in the public after the fiscal crisis. People realize the old way of doing business is not sustainable.”

Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College and a close observer of state politics, says Franchot is taking the only path readily open to him as he weighs a gubernatorial run.

“You’ve got Gansler and Brown really appealing to two core constituencies in the primary electorate: the African-American vote and the very progressive sort of committed liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” Eberly says. “As comptroller, it’s not as though [Franchot] can have a crusading agenda like Gansler can, [one] that could get him street credibility with the progressive wing of the party.