WASHINGTON -- Republican challenger Patrick J. Buchanan may pick up a protest vote of nearly 30 percent against President Bush in Maryland today despite the state GOP's history of favoring more moderate candidates and Mr. Buchanan's decision not to campaign actively.
A Maryland poll of likely Republican voters last week gave the president a margin of 64 percent to 23 percent over the challenger, with 13 percent still undecided.
Those results, gathered by Potomac Survey Research, suggested a shift toward the challenger. An earlier poll by Mason-Dixon Research of Columbia put Mr. Bush at 69 percent and Mr. Buchanan at 19 percent with the rest undecided.
If Mr. Buchanan were to claim nearly a third of the GOP vote in a state that he had all but written off because of its moderate tradition and winner-take-all primary rules, it could signal a ripe climate for the Democratic nominee to pull Maryland back to its usual place in the Democratic column in November.
"I think Bush has serious problems here," said Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research. "And Maryland has often been a precursor of what's going on in the rest of the country."
Based on the experience of earlier primaries, White House officials say they are expecting a base protest vote of 25 percent to 30 percent in each of the seven states holding primary contests today, and much more in Georgia, where Mr. Buchanan is putting most of his resources.
Both the Bush and Buchanan campaigns have considered Maryland among the most friendly of the early primary states for the president. Mr. Bush has always run well in Maryland and fits with the moderate mold of Republicans such as former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr.
But the economy, which was such a strong issue in the New Hampshire primary, is also a great concern in Maryland.
"People are still sending that message, even though the president says he has already heard it," observed Laura Green Treffer, chairman of the Republican Central Committee in Anne Arundel County. "I don't think they believe him."
Mr. Bush attempted to woo back the party faithful yesterday through a last-minute round of interviews with television stations in Baltimore and Colorado, which is also holding a primary today.
"Obviously, it concerns me," the president said on WJZ-TV of his drop in the Maryland poll. But he added he was more concerned that "people have suffered through this bad economy. The president has to bear his share of the responsibility."
The Buchanan campaign, working on a shoestring budget with a skeleton staff and no candidate in the state since early February, claimed it would be happy to get more than 10 percent of the vote.
"I'd be shocked" if the challenger drew as much as 25 percent, said Seth Stein, chairman of the Buchanan campaign in Maryland.
Protest vote?" mused Joseph Steffen, a Baltimore accountant who is running as a Buchanan delegate.
Not all of the disenchantment with Mr. Bush is likely to show up as Buchanan votes, said Ms. Treffer, who believes the conservative commentator is too far right for many people even in Anne Arundel, which is the most conservative of Maryland's most populous counties. Some voters are likely to just stay home, she said.