Deep in Maryland crab country, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican challenger Robert Ehrlich joined thousands Wednesday at a crab and clam bake where candidates talked about the state's economy over the scent of steaming seafood.
O'Malley, a Democrat, touted his job creation efforts, saying he believes Maryland residents want to see government helping to put people back to work.
"We are not out of these tough times yet, but we are moving forward, and we are moving forward quicker than most other states," O'Malley said, shortly after arriving at the 34th annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake.
As the smell of crabs and clams wafted in the hot summer air, O'Malley cited the Chesapeake Bay's rebounding crab population as evidence that his administration's environmental measures are working. He also said he believes new oyster policies will help revive the depleted oyster population in the bay.
"We have finally embraced a much better way forward that involves more native oyster aquaculture, more sanctuaries and hopefully a resource that like the crab population is going to start expanding rather than continually shrinking," O'Malley said.
But the oyster policies have not been well-received by watermen on the Eastern Shore, who question the effectiveness of sanctuaries and complain that aquaculture requires expensive investments that take years to become fruitful.
Ehrlich, a former governor who attended a round-table with farmers before the crab feast, said he wants to bring farmers and watermen back to the table in Annapolis.
"Farmers and watermen feel ostracized at times, marginalized most of the time, with regard to the O'Malley administration," Ehrlich said, noting that also they felt that way with Ehrlich's predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening.
Ehrlich also criticized O'Malley's talk about job creation.
"Jobs, jobs, jobs is a mantra. It's not a way of thinking," Ehrlich said. "It just can't be an election-year slogan. It has to be what you think of day-one, every day during your tenure."
Brian Murphy, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, used the occasion to criticize O'Malley and Ehrlich, both of whom he blamed for raising taxes. Murphy said he would work to make the state more attractive to businesses.
"It's a tax culture," Murphy said of Maryland state government. "It does not create certainty for companies."
The outdoor all-you-can-eat affair is a big Maryland tradition. Roughly 6,000 people attended, said Allison Castellana, Crisfield's events planner.
The chow-down draws scores of candidates from across the state, and its significance wasn't lost on O'Malley or Ehrlich.
"It's not really an election year unless there's fanfare at Tawes," O'Malley said.
Said Ehrlich: "It's about as Maryland as you get. It's a have-to."
Maryland's primary is scheduled for Sept. 14.