MARYLAND HAS a rare chance to play an early, meaningful role in the 1992 presidential primary elections. It could be the first time in the state's history in which it made any substantial difference in the selection of a presidential candidate.
As the primary schedule now stands, Iowa, with its Feb. 17 caucuses, New Hampshire, with its Feb. 25 primary, and Maine, with a March 1 caucus, come first on the presidential selection calendar. These three states have exceptions to the rule allowing states to pick any primary date after the first Tuesday in March.
The first Tuesday in March 1992 had been tentatively penciled in for California. Had the nation's largest state taken the March 3 date, it could have settled one or both parties' contests early. But California Republicans balked at the idea.
Thus the March 3 date is still open. Democratic State Party Chairman Nathan Landow wants Maryland to reserve the day for its primary. "We have the first shot," Landow said. "No one else is there yet."
Landow will be seeking the support of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and legislative leaders to move up Maryland's primary from Super Tuesday, now tentatively set for the second Tuesday in March, to March 3. The idea is considered attractive enough to win support.
Unless some other state muscles in, Maryland would be the first Democratic-leaning state to vote in the presidential primary. Were it to vote alone, its decision would be rendered just a week after New Hampshire's.
In January Landow proposed breaking with Super Tuesday, when 20 states, 14 of them Southern and border states, go to the polls. "If we do nothing else," Landow said, "we should opt out of Super Tuesday and not join any combination that will reduce our visibility and influence."
"When we're lumped together with a score of states there is no way that our voters will have the kind of impact which by their numbers and their high level of political involvement they should have," he added.
In 1988, Maryland reaped little benefit from being a cog in the great Super Tuesday meat grinder. Landow noted that the average candidate only spent "about a day and a half" campaigning in the state that year. And you could hardly blame them: They had 19 other states to cover, including some big ones like Texas, Florida and North Carolina. Total spending in the state that year for primary campaigning was no more than $250,000, according to Landow -- a minuscule sum when one considers that 10 times that amount was spent in Iowa and at least six times as much in New Hampshire.
"I would like our state not just to garner a lot of attention, but rather make a difference," Landow told lawmakers. He wants a date on which the state would be "the only" one holding a primary or at least the only border or Southern state. During his testimony last January, it seemed as if California would move to grab the Tuesday after New Hampshire's primary. So Landow recommended the third or fourth Tuesday in March. Along with that proposal, he wanted the Super Tuesday combination broken up, with the dozen or so Southern states splitting into groups of three or four and taking every Tuesday during the month of March.
But with the first Tuesday in March now open, Landow is switching his recommendation to March 3.
Until 1988, Maryland's primary traditionally had been in May. And since at least 1916, the presidential primary race was for all practical purposes over by then. On the whole, Maryland did nothing more than ratify the decisions already made by other states.
Then two years ago Maryland joined the Super Tuesday primary. The idea was to increase the influence of Southern and border states in order to pick a more electable Democratic party standard bearer in the wake of the 1984 debacle. The Democratic nominee that year, Walter Mondale, won only 13 electoral votes, the worst showing ever by any Democrat.
But the Super Tuesday experiment didn't work either. In 1988 a northern liberal, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, won the two largest batches of delegates in Florida and Texas and went on to win the Democratic nomination. But then, despite a big early lead in the polls, Dukakis ran what many Democrats considered a poor campaign and ultimately lost to George Bush with just 111 electoral votes, or 20.6 percent of the total.
"There is no better example of the law of unintended consequences in the history of the presidential nomination process," explained Landow. Now Democrats are again thinking they can do better with a different system and a more electable candidate. So they'll try again.