State Democrats hope they are right about their 'feeling'

September 08, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Democrats were certain yesterday that more people at the state fair filled out voter registration forms at their booth, ignoring the nearby Republicans.

That highly partisan score-keeping stood as one more argument for the "feeling," the undefinable "sense" that things are going well in Maryland for the Democratic ticket of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

But directly across from the Democrats in the fair's Exhibition Hall, the pin worn by Joe Staub, a GOP volunteer who worked the booth his party set up, warned that "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Democratic."

"What surprises me is how many people want to display bumper stickers and stick-ons" for President Bush, Mr. Staub said with a swipe at the news media. "All you hear in the media is negatives -- the polls, the charges of negative campaigning against the president." If that picture is accurate, he wondered, why were so many still eager to assert their preference for the president.

Still, Democrats wishfully offered bits and pieces for a victory mosaic from several parts of the state:

* In Montgomery County, Democratic leaders say residents of every age and cast of thought are signing up to vote in large numbers, many of them after renouncing their allegiance to the GOP.

* Clinton-Gore campaign headquarters in Baltimore already has run out of lapel pins and bumper stickers.

* For a local party in honor of Hillary Clinton, the Arkansas governor's wife, people were volunteering to buy tickets. "People just don't do that for political fund-raisers," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, as if he had found the ultimate justification for optimism.

Overall, he and other Maryland Democrats say, the enthusiasm is "incredible."

Compared with the three previous presidential elections, the difference is this: Democrats in Maryland are not apologizing for their party's national ticket, says John T. Willis, a former party official.

Even taking into account the usual level of best-face campaign talk, Democratic leaders here are more committed to their ticket in 1992 than they have been since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

"People see that the Republicans are not interested in the cities," said Del. Anne S. Perkins of central Baltimore. "They see Bush as a bumbler and not a strong leader. Clinton looks strong and he's in touch with real life and the president hasn't been."

"We are just a reflection of what we hear," Mr. Cardin said. "There's a sense that Clinton can win. There's a real sense that this is doable. It can become a contagion."

Republicans, of course, will do everything they can to immunize the electorate.

Republican conservative Mary Shaffrey, 17, a senior this year at Notre Dame and a volunteer in the fair booth yesterday, said a number of small-business owners said they are "terrified" that Mr. Clinton might win. The economy is not good now, Miss Shaffrey said, but if Mr. Clinton wins, the outlook will be worse.

The state fair skirmishing found Democratic state Sen. Nancy L. Murphy of Baltimore County countering Mr. Staub's button with one that said "Vote Noe" with the face of Vice President Dan Quayle crossed out with a diagonal red line.

"People are hurting," Ms. Murphy said. "They need a lift. During the Republican convention people were calling our offices inflamed. They wanted to know what they could do. I didn't see the Republican convention so I don't know what they said, but we ought to pay them to keep saying it."

What will matter in the end are voters such as David Regan, who says he can't remember if he voted in 1988. He won't have the same problem in this election year.

"I'm looking for a change because I'm dissatisfied with the way things are going," he said after completing a voter registration form.

Mr. Regan said he is not angry with Mr. Bush. The president is a fine speaker, he said, and he did a fine job as commander in chief during the war against Iraq.

At home, he said, the story is stagnation. He has not been hit personally, but too many people he knows are suffering. "We need a change to improve things," he said. "We just aren't seeing it."

Except in the attitudes of the long-suffering Democrats.

When Mr. Clinton came to Maryland last week for a two-day campaign visit, state Sen. Michael J. Wagner helped organize the reception at Randazzo Field, a softball diamond in northern Anne Arundel County decorated for the occasion with dozens of U.S. flags.

"Look at this guy," Mr. Wagner said from his right field vantage point as a game proceeded with Mr. Clinton as guest pitcher. "He looks like Robert Redford out there."

Even if that image is only relative to the Democratic candidates of the 1980s, a Democrat with some level of star power means Mr. Wagner can marshal his electioneering troops, man the polls -- and maybe even win in a district where Democratic voters have deserted their party in recent elections.

"People around here know they're not better off. They know about all the jobs lost at Westinghouse," he said, referring to the big nearby manufacturer.

Former state party official John Willis said hardheaded, savvy and experienced leaders like Mr. Wagner are allowing themselves to trust the "feeling out there."

"Behind their backs," he said, "They've got their fingers crossed hoping they're right."

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