Uncertainty shadows Md. primary 'A lot of people just waking up' to Tuesday vote

March 01, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

The 1992 Maryland presidential primary campaign bolts toward a conclusion Tuesday with no certain Democratic winner in sight and no certainty among Democratic voters, many of whom appear more confused than enthusiastic about the state's earliest-ever primary.

"I usually see some sort of marriage between voting patterns and anecdotal evidence," says Pam Brewington, chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. "But I can't put the zTC trends and personal stories together this year."

Voters in Montgomery County, one of the most informed and sophisticated electorates in the state or nation, are still sorting through position papers, trying to match perceptions with proposals.

"A lot of people are just waking up to the fact that they're supposed to vote on Tuesday," Mrs. Brewington says.

But vote they will.

President Bush is expected to win the Republican primary with ease -- although some way could be found to express the anger directed at him elsewhere. Door-to-door interviewers have found, and some Republican officials here concede, that there is a palpable degree of unhappiness with the president.

He has been in the state three times in recent weeks, announcing new financial support for various programs. The president's opponent, conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan, has not campaigned in the state.

A major event in the short campaign occurs tonight when the Democratic candidates appear at a forum sponsored by the Maryland Democratic Party. The 90-minute forum begins at 6 p.m. in the Tawes Theater on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland.

The few polls taken during the campaign show high numbers of undecided voters -- 25 percent or so.

But former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas appears to be poised for the victory he has said he must have in Maryland to certify himself as a candidate who is viable outside New England. Mr. Tsongas holds a 12 percentage point lead over Mr. Clinton, according to a poll conducted last week by Potomac Survey Research of Bethesda.

Including both committed and "leaning" respondents, Mr. Tsongas had 35 percent of the 455-voter sample, compared with 23 percent for Mr. Clinton. None of the other contenders scored higher than 6 percent, and some 23 percent of those surveyed said they were undecided.

Mr. Tsongas' fortunes are said to rest with his appeal to middle- and upper-middle-class white voters who are well-educated, who worry about the environment -- and, perhaps most important, who yearn for straight talk from politicians. They seem willing and eager to struggle through the confusion and make it to the polls.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton can win if his organization in Baltimore and beyond can turn out the faithful. In this city, "a full-court press" ispromised by Larry Gibson, the power behind Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has endorsed Mr. Clinton. One poll showed Mr. Clinton ahead of Mr. Tsongas by 42 percent to 18 percent among blacks.

Similar potential for a Clinton vote exists in the majority black 4th Congressional District of Prince George's County -- a new district in which more than a dozen Democratic candidates are likely to pull an appreciable number of voters to the polls.

If Mr. Clinton has not been damaged by the outburst of angry comments he directed at the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson last week, he could be a beneficiary of this closely fought campaign. His problem with Mr. Jackson erupted last Wednesday when he was told -- erroneously -- that the civil rights leader was about to back Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin.

The shadow of the faltering Mr. Harkin could fall even more heavily upon the Arkansas governor's prospects. If the liberal Iowan's message is adopted by a significant number of voters, particularly black voters, he would probably hurt Mr. Clinton most. At least two of Baltimore's New Democratic Coalition clubs went along with the struggling Mr. Harkin at the behest of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, whose impassioned advocacy for him wasdecisive.

Mr. Tsongas has been the more visible candidate on television. Until this weekend, when a modest television campaign will begin for Mr. Clinton in the Washington area, the governor's media campaign had been aimed at the Baltimore region only.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey will do poorly in Maryland if the state's senior political organizers are right: Candidates who want to succeed here must campaign here. Mr. Kerrey has been a no-show -- and his campaign staff said Friday that he might not even appear for tonight's debate. The Potomac Survey Research poll found only 5 percent of the sample supported Mr. Kerrey.

Former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., though he won Maryland in 1976, has virtually no presence here. In truth, 1976 was more a victory for former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who wanted to reassert his control of the state's Democratic machinery and did by turning out a win for Mr. Brown.

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