Winning Maryland Isn't So Easy

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 01, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Too many presidential primaries seriously distorts the political process. The proliferation of early primaries this year has candidates bouncing from one state to another like ping-pong balls. None of this is very presidential.

Bam! A rally in Baltimore. Bam! Off to a Chicago fund-raiser. Bam! zTC Back to Annapolis for a photo-op at the State House. Bam! High-tailing it to Sioux City for a press conference. Bam! Flying back to greet commuters at a Bethesda Metro stop. Bam! Dashing to Atlanta for a televised debate. Bam! Heading for New York to cut some new commercials. Bam! Next destination, please?

This is how you get elected president these days. The public rarely catches more than a glimpse of the candidates -- except during TV debates. It is sound-bite campaigning: say just enough or stage just enough of an event to make the 6 o'clock news shows and earn some free ink in the next day's newspaper. All John and Joan Q. Citizen get is a blurred image, barely a whiff of what the candidates really stand for.

That's what has occurred in the brief Maryland primary. Two weeks between New Hampshire's results and the Maryland vote aren't sufficient for candidates to canvass the state -- unless they are willing to concentrate exclusively on one state and abandon any chance in other primaries around that time. Jerry Brown did it in 1976 against Jimmy Carter and won. But no one is pursuing such a strategy in 1992.

If you can't afford to spend all your time in Maryland, how do you reach voters? A variety of approaches have been tried but no one has been successful.

Do you focus your limited time and resources in Baltimore? In the Washington suburbs? On television commercials? On radio ads and talk-show appearances? On detailed position papers? On slick slogans?

Bill Clinton came to Baltimore to talk at a black church and gain the backing of Mayor Kurt Schmoke. He also was criticized in the Washington area for snubbing that section of the state. The votes, the theory goes, are in the suburbs, not in the city. And not just any suburbs, either. Power lies in the Washington suburbs, not in Baltimore.

That theory doesn't pass muster. Winning a presidential race here isn't so clear-cut. Voting power is dispersed between Baltimore and Washington. Four years ago, a whopping 72 percent of Democratic primary votes were cast in just five subdivisions -- three in the Baltimore region, two in the Washington region. Of these, three subdivisions turned out just about the same number of Democratic voters -- Baltimore City, 90,633; Montgomery County, 90,883, and Baltimore County, 91,256. Each accounted for 17 percent of the statewide total.

The situation is a little simpler in Republican vote-counting circles: 23 percent of the GOP votes four years ago came from Montgomery County, 14 percent from Baltimore County and 11 percent each from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties. The city is a non-factor in GOP races: it cast less than 6,000 votes (out of a statewide total of 201,000) in the 1988 primary.

What's a candidate to do? The easiest tactic for a Democrat is the most traditional. Head for the big city, grab the mayor's endorsement, the backing of local labor unions and key black leaders. These are the old-fashioned power bases for liberal Democrats. But no longer. Power does reside in the suburbs, but suburban sprawl makes it impossible for a politician to deliver his message quickly or effectively.

How does a Paul Tsongas line up support in a mere two weeks in both Baltimore County and Montgomery County? They are large geographically, voters are spread all over the place, they lie in different media markets and their demographic profiles are strikingly different. Do you shake hands at bus stops? Wave at rush-hour commuters at a busy traffic intersection? Hit the malls? Split your time between the counties?

In suburbia, there is no central core. Where is downtown Montgomery County? Gaithersburg, Rockville, Bethesda, Silver Spring or Germantown? Is Towson the heart of Baltimore County? Not to folks in Dundalk or White Marsh or Owings Mills or Hunt Valley or Catonsville.

No wonder national politicians, unfamiliar with the territory, are confused. Their campaigns are unfocused. Their messages aren't getting through to voters.

Among the Democrats, only Mr. Tsongas has captured the public's imagination with his "no more Santa Claus" campaign realism. Voters -- suburban and urban alike -- are angry and fed up. They may not know much about Mr. Tsongas' specific stands, but they do know he's willing to face up to the country's horrendous spending binge.

Pat Buchanan and Jerry Brown are also delivering a "mad as hell, aren't going to take it any more" message. But they are just angry; they don't offer rational solutions. They aren't "presidential."

The brevity of this campaign means voters probably won't pick a candidate till the last minute. Bill Clinton has most of the Democratic establishment; George Bush has most GOP leaders. Will that be enough? Just last fall, angry voters in the populous suburbs tossed out numerous incumbent officeholders. If they are still mad enough and eager enough to send a message, Maryland's presidential primary offers them a superb opportunity let the whole country know how they feel.

Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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