Maryland's primary primary

Frank A. DeFilippo

January 30, 1992|By Frank A. DeFilippo

AS PRESIDENTIAL primary campaigns go, Maryland's a pretty good buy. A reasonable investment can get a candidate two media markets, eight congressional districts, convention delegates and alternates, not to mention that a few dollars more will purchase those lovable muldoons in the precincts.

What's more important, though, is the send-'em-a-message politics that a strong showing in Maryland telegraphs to the 535 members of Congress as well as the 8,000 reporters who work and play in the District of Columbia (and many of whom live in Maryland).

So all of a sudden, Maryland's once again semi-important in presidential politics. And it's not because of size or the number of electoral votes Maryland casts.

It has more to do with changing the date of the state's presidential primary to March 3, giving Maryland a jump-start over the Super Tuesday states a week later. But it also involves that critical ingredient of every piece of prime real estate -- location, location, location.

Maryland never did belong in the Super Tuesday cluster of 20 states. Now that Maryland has pushed back its presidential primary to March 3, only four other states will precede it -- the early-bird Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire, Maine and South Dakota primaries.

Three other states -- Colorado, Idaho and Minnesota -- have their primary contests on the same day as Maryland. On the following Saturday, March 7, Arizona, Nevada, South Carolina and Wyoming weigh in. And on Super Tuesday, March 10, a dozen states -- Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas -- provide the background noise before the crucial Illinois primary on March 17.

President Bush has discovered the importance of Maryland. In what looks like the federal equivalent of walk-around money, he's released $45 million in federal boodle to help decontaminate the Chesapeake Bay. And he traveled to Catonsville to declaim that he's budgeting another $600 million to prop up the Head Start program. Mrs. Bush comes frequently to promote her literacy project in Maryland schools. Vice President Dan Quayle has been to Baltimore on several occasions, and his wife, Marilyn, is an occasional speaker in the state.

Visiting Democrats include Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who even came for a day to lay bricks at Baltimore's new baseball stadium.

By contrast, in 1988 Michael Dukakis made a quick stop in Maryland, raised thousands of dollars and was never heard from again. Worse, Mr. Dukakis failed to leave behind the campaign gee-gaws that political clubs treasure such as sample ballots, campaign buttons, bumper stickers and more important, the coin of the realm in the precincts, walk-around money.

All of which says something more about Maryland than just plain politics. Maryland is joined at the hip with the District of Columbia. Not only is it convenient to the nation's capital, but Maryland's just about perfect for media coverage. It's possible to campaign in Maryland as well as across the nation in a single visit.

Maryland covers two media markets -- the Baltimore area and the D.C.-Virginia area. Each market has four commercial television stations, dozens of radio stations and each has important newspapers. Virtually the entire state is wired for cable. Television spillover from Washington into Virginia is a recognition bonus for that state's April 11 primary.

But the sudden fuss over Maryland goes beyond the state's own back alleys and Palookavilles. Every major newspaper and news service in the country maintains a bureau in Washington, as do the all-important television networks.

So in a time of financial losses and severe cutbacks, television networks may not put crews on campaign planes, but they'll surely send reporters and cameras into Maryland from Washington for photo opportunities and talking heads. A quick visit to Maryland is likely to get a candidate not only local coverage but a spot on network television as well.

In an age of satellites, uplinks and downlinks, television, like God, is everywhere. And wherever there's television, there's a camera pursuing a candidate and a candidate mugging for the camera. Modern campaigning is all about sex, lies and videotape.

If the medium is the message, it's the message that's all important. And the message from Maryland is momentum -- the headlines and election results that will help thin the ranks on the Democratic side of the ballot as well as carry candidates of both parties into the succeeding clump of 18 primaries with added electoral authority.

How a candidate does in Maryland's presidential primary determines in some measure how he'll be accepted by the fraternity of reporters in Washington and the parliament of lawmakers and staff members on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress want a winner they can feel comfortable running with in their own states, and staff members influence to a large degree how their bosses think. As for reporters, they like the sweet smell of success as well as anyone else. And how a candidate appears to the voters and measures in the polls influences how he's treated in stories and interviews.

So for the next four weeks, Maryland's an important playground for presidential candidates. And it's more because of where Maryland is than what it is.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics.

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