ANNAPOLIS -- When the General Assembly gave Maryland a March 3 presidential primary this year, it may have saved the state's voters from once again casting their ballots in obscurity -- or after the races were all but decided.
"Maryland has become an important steppingstone instead of an afterthought," Democratic National Committeeman Lanny Davis says.
In 1988, Maryland was obscured in the crush of states that held their primaries on "Super Tuesday." In earlier years, the state's primary came so late that the winners had virtually locked up their nominations.
This year, when Maryland goes to the polls, no more than 3 percent of convention delegates pledged to specific candidates will have been picked -- in states such as New Hampshire and Iowa.
Another 10 percent will be chosen March 3. About 20 percent more of the pledged delegates will be picked March 10, this year's Super Tuesday. By a week later, 50 percent of the delegates will have been chosen.
So Maryland voters will be among the first in the nation to reach a judgment about who should represent the Democrats and Republicans in the general election.
Already, there are signs of a more vigorous campaign here, with more appearances by the contenders, more organizing and more advertising. The candidates have scheduled real campaign stops -- speeches, meetings with party officials and voter forums.
They go far beyond the airport press conferences scheduled for candidates as they wait to change planes -- the sort of campaigning that characterized earlier primaries in the state. At least one major contender reportedly has reserved money for TV advertising -- a sign of real commitment.
Strategic considerations also conspire to make Maryland's primary more visible. The winner of the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18 will try to consolidate his position as the man to beat. The also-rans will be looking desperately for some proof of electability. They'll try to convince contributors they can win.
If conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan wounds President Bush with his challenge in New Hampshire, the president will be anxious to campaign in a state where voters have not been so thoroughly pummeled by the economy.
Maryland's Republicans also tend to be less conservative than New Hampsire's -- and perhaps more friendly to the president.
Even with the candidates concentrating on the New Hampshire primary, the Maryland campaign was on in earnest last week. The president, the vice president's wife and three Democratic contenders all made appearances here.
Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas spoke to about 200 students from the pulpit at the University of Maryland Law School's Westminster Hall in Baltimore.
His appearance had a broader significance for one member of his audience. Robin Simonds, a 34-year-old computer scientist at the law school, had despaired of finding a real campaign earlier this year.
"We're beginning to see people taking risks with their political careers, to suggest that there may be some solutions. Tough times are forcing candidates to grapple with our problems," he said.
Whether or not Mr. Tsongas will get his vote, Mr. Simonds was grateful for the presence of someone who could dispel his "feeling that government only serves those who are in a position to influence it in a way most of us can't." Mr. Tsongas, he said, "was laying out a road we could travel on to get us where we want to be as a nation."
He was eager to see the alternate maps presented by President Bush and the other Democrats. He didn't have to wait long.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was in Annapolis Tuesday and former California Gov. Jerry Brown was in Baltimore briefly Friday. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, with one of the most vigorous early bids for the votes of Marylanders, will speak tomorrow at Heritage United Church of Christ on Liberty Road.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey was in Maryland last November for a Veterans Day address. His campaign manager is a well-respected political organizer, Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley.
Mr. Simonds said he looks forward to closer examination of how Mr. Kerrey, Mr. Tsongas and the other candidates propose to deal with "the fiscal realities" -- balancing the need for housing and better public education against the deficit.
Although he has yet to name a day-to-day campaign manager for Maryland, President Bush helicoptered to Catonsville last week to announce a $600 million infusion of cash for the preschool program called Head Start.
The president was meeting his promise to make the program available to all who are eligible -- and countering the charge that he has no domestic policy. He also announced a $40 million waste-treatment grant for Baltimore and another $5 million for the Chesapeake Bay.