"There's really not a lot of room to the right of Roscoe Bartlett," said Michael Towle, chairman of the political science department at Mount St. Mary's College.
Rolle's campaign acknowledges his disadvantage in name recognition across the mostly rural district, which spans all or parts of seven counties from far western Maryland to the Susquehanna River. Bartlett, a millionaire physiologist, inventor and Frederick County farmer, has served for six terms, easily winning his re-election races.
Rolle (pronounced RAH-lee) also lags in fund-raising, with just $22,520 on hand at the end of 2003 compared with Bartlett's $280,000.
In race to win
Given those facts and Bartlett's age, 77, Towle said Rolle may merely be trying to build name recognition for a run at what could be an empty seat in 2006.
But Rolle, 42, insists he means to win this year, with a campaign that includes knocking on doors to discuss what he sees as Bartlett's failings.
"To be against the death penalty for terrorists is not conservative, in my opinion. He voted to require United Nations approval before we went to Iraq. To sell out U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. is not conservative, in my opinion," Rolle said.
Last year, Bartlett supported a failed amendment that would have barred using federal funds - including counterterrorism funds - for the death-penalty phases of federal trials. The vote contradicted Bartlett's support for capital punishment in 1994, when he cast a series of votes supporting the federal death penalty.
In an interview with The Associated Press Feb. 9, Bartlett acknowledged he "came hard over" against capital punishment in February 1998 after Karla Faye Tucker was executed in Texas for killing two people.
"Clearly, the woman we killed was not the demented girl that was involved in that horrific murder. She was a born-again Christian, nobody denied that. And I asked myself the next morning, 'Who in God's world is better off today because we killed Karla Faye Tucker last night?'"
Bartlett said capital punishment doesn't deter criminals and costs more than 60 years of confinement. He said the death penalty is "preferentially" applied more often to poor, uneducated minorities, "and morally, I have a problem with that."
Bartlett supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq after another measure he backed, seeking an additional congressional vote if there was a lack of U.N. support, failed. He said last week that going to war "would have been a tougher vote" if he had known then what is apparent now: that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
"It's hard to play 'what if,' but it would have been nice to have had that information out there," Bartlett said.
Patriot Act debate
He also voted for the Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which expanded the government's surveillance authority, removed barriers between FBI and CIA information-sharing, and provided more tools for terror finance investigations. But Bartlett said Congress should let the law expire next year instead of reauthorizing it, as President Bush has asked.
"I don't know when this war on terror will end, and if the price of waging this war is an erosion of our civil liberties, the terrorists will have won," Bartlett said.
Rolle contends the Patriot Act is still needed: "I think there are some provisions in there that bother me, but I also think the reason we haven't had another 9/11 is because that's a good tool for law enforcement, to a certain extent, to keep that from happening."
Rolle said he favors repealing the section that lets federal agents secretly seize library reading lists.
The candidates also differ on President Bush's proposed manned mission to Mars. Bartlett likes it; Rolle said it's too costly to pursue right now.
Rolle said he wouldn't have supported a bill Bartlett endorsed last year holding prison operators accountable for sexual assaults on inmates.
He also disagreed with Bartlett's position that the United States should resume offensive biological weapons research to stay abreast of technological advancements. President Nixon banned offensive bioweapons research in 1969, limiting Army scientists at Fort Detrick in Frederick to developing vaccines, antidotes and other defenses.
Like Bartlett, Rolle abhors abortion and favors a constitutional amendment barring homosexuals from marrying - although Rolle said he would vote for such a measure only if the recent Massachusetts state court ruling upholding gay marriage is sustained.