WASHINGTON – After years as a backwater of presidential politics, Maryland may finally be getting some respect.
With the Tuesday primary looming, candidates from both parties have stepped up their efforts here to a level unseen in previous elections, said campaign officials.
“A month ago, we were just another Super Tuesday state,” said Rep. Bob Ehrlich, R-Timonium. “Now we’ve risen in the hierarchy.”
Ehrlich, the state co-chairman for Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s GOP bid, said Bush had originally planned to spend few resources targeting Maryland voters. But with Republican Sen. John McCain’s victories in New Hampshire, Michigan and Arizona, Bush has turned up the heat in an effort to win Republican votes.
“This race has suddenly become more competitive,” Ehrlich said. “And Maryland has become a lot more important.”
Normally overshadowed by bigger states — 11 primaries will be held Tuesday, including those in New York and California — Maryland is suddenly getting some of the spotlight.
The Bush team has put 10 paid staffers in Maryland and organized phone banks, mass mailings and the placement of yard signs, while the McCain campaign has increased its focus on Maryland through fund raisers, mailings and a continuous phone bank.
While neither Bush nor McCain has campaigned in Maryland, both Democratic hopefuls have stumped here. Former Sen. Bill Bradley attended a Feb. 4 rally at the University of Maryland College Park, and Vice President Al Gore was in Baltimore last month and at a District Heights grade school Thursday.
Carol Arscott of Gonzalez/Arscott Research, an independent polling firm, said the Republicans’ attention to Maryland is unusual. While Democrats usually depend on the state’s large bloc of Democratic votes, GOP candidates largely write off Maryland as a waste of time.
“Maryland is always a strategic part of a winning coalition for Democrats,” Arscott said. “But for a Republican, it’s usually not.”
She noted that Maryland has voted Democratic in every presidential election except 1984 and 1988.
“Republicans … come into Maryland at a natural disadvantage,” Arscott said. “If Republicans do win it’s usually by a landslide.”
Polls by Gonzalez/Arscott showed McCain closing to within 10 percentage points of Bush in February, up from a 29 percentage-point gap in January. Gaithersburg resident Alan Keyes trailed in the February poll with 4 percent of independents and registered Republicans.
Tuesday’s Republican primary is open to independent voters for the first time, but Arscott said Maryland’s independent voters will probably not have the impact they enjoyed in other states.
“Independents are not a part of the political culture here like they are in New Hampshire,” Arscott said. “Here, independents are less likely to vote.”
She said a poll showed that just over half of the state’s independents even knew that the Republican primary is open to them Tuesday.
“Its all very new,” Arscott said. “But if the race is close enough, it could make a difference.”
But McCain’s state chairman, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said he is confident that Maryland’s independent voters will put his candidate over the top.
“I think [the open primary] will have a big effect,” Gilchrest said. “Independents draw from both ideologies and McCain reflects their independent thinking.”
Maryland has 31 delegates to the Republican convention up for grabs.
On the Democratic side, where 91 delegates are at stake, Gore looks to trounce Bradley by almost 40 points, according to an Arscott/Gonzalez poll of registered Maryland Democrats in February.
Patrick Gonzalez, Arscott’s partner, said Bradley is faltering because he has failed to present a credible argument for denying the nomination to a sitting vice president. And McCain’s insurgent campaign left Bradley out of the spotlight.
The vice president also has the support of most of the state’s political leaders: Gov. Parris Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend were scheduled to campaign for Gore over the weekend.