WASHINGTON – Maryland has become a popular place for Democratic presidential hopefuls recently.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman visited an elementary school in Silver Spring last week. The Rev. Al Sharpton was scheduled to preach at two churches in Baltimore Sunday and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was expected to speak Monday at the University of Maryland College Park.
But that personal attention to the Old Line state may be over after Tuesday’s debate at Morgan State University, which eight of the nine announced Democratic candidates are expected to attend.
“The candidates themselves probably won’t make many trips to Maryland,” said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
While polls show the state is still up for grabs with six months to go until the March primary, the strong Democratic state is not likely to be a frequent stop for candidates.
Maryland’s March 2 primary falls after almost half of the other state primaries and will be on Super Tuesday — the same day as several other states, including big ones like Texas, California and New York.
California and New York “will be the big prizes. That’s for sure,” White said.
“Maryland doesn’t have enough delegates to be a key state, but it’s certainly up for grabs for all of these candidates,” says Allan Lichtman, professor of history at American University.
Tuesday’s debate will have a longer reach than just Maryland voters. It is one of two — the second will be in Detroit — sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and Fox News.
Caucus spokesman Doug Thornell said all Democratic candidates but Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who has a scheduling conflict, are planning to attend the debate. Questions about education, health care, the economy, national security and terrorism, and civil rights are likely to be brought up moderators, he said.
The Democratic debate comes as President Bush’s popularity in Maryland is at its lowest level since he took office, according to a poll of Maryland voters by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.
The August poll of 829 voters put Bush’s job approval rating at 43 percent, down from 62 percent in April.
The poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, also said that both Dean and Lieberman could beat Bush in a one-on-one race. It said Dean would beat Bush, 43 to 42 percent, and Lieberman get 45 of the Maryland vote to Bush’s 41 percent.
Among 308 registered Democrats expecting to vote in the March primary, Dean leads Lieberman and John Kerry, with 25 percent of the primary votes to their 23 percent and 11 percent, respectively. None of the other candidates had more than 10 percent of the votes in the poll.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary in Maryland will be the candidate “who works the grass roots well,” said White.
White pointed to Dean’s scheduled visit to College Park as an example of that type of organization. He estimated that Dean supporters were working for three to six months on the Maryland campaign before this week’s visit.
“A lot of that stuff happens because of grass roots, not because of paid political people,” he said.
“You can have a lot going on in the state and not have the presidential candidate show up there,” White said.
Which may well be the case in Maryland, he added, as Democrats concentrate on bigger states or on snagging early wins in the more than a dozen states holding their primaries in February.
“The Virginia primary is on February 10th, and that should be a pretty good contest,” he said. “You may see candidates on Washington television.”