U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas handily won a presidential straw poll yesterday in the first such survey of Republican activists from across Maryland this primary season.
Mr. Gramm won the informal poll of 149 Republican State Central Committee members with 51 percent of the vote, beating Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas by almost a 2-1 ratio. Mr. Dole remains the GOP front-runner in polls nationally and statewide.
Mr. Dole placed second with 26 percent, while former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, who is struggling to make the Republican primary a three-man race, took 12 percent.
"We won bigger than I expected," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 GOP gubernatorial candidate who chairs Mr. Gramm's statewide campaign.
But Mr. Gramm's win was hardly a surprise. Mrs. Sauerbrey has worked tirelessly on his behalf in the state, getting a jump on both the Dole and Alexander campaigns in locking up support among activists and elected officials.
While candidates for Maryland's March 5 presidential primary hardly have crossed the screens of most voters, the early success of Mr. Gramm among GOP activists is due to the grass-roots work of Mrs. Sauerbrey through her statewide campaign organization. How that translates to votes remains to be seen, although anti-Gramm forces acknowledge the importance of her troops as a factor in assessing his chances.
The poll, which was taken at the semiannual meeting of the Maryland Republican Party, was open only to members of the state central committee, though it was not sanctioned by the state party. Nearly two-thirds of the state GOP committee members took part in the poll; about 180 of them posted for the 1 1/2 -day gathering in Columbia.
At least eight other straw polls of local GOP organizations in the ++ state have been taken since June, but yesterday's survey -- sponsored by the Howard County Republican Central Committee -- marked the first time a statewide sampling was attempted. The earlier polls all were won by Mr. Gramm.
Other GOP candidates also made a showing in the poll. Conservative television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and millionaire publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr. each received five votes; Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar got three; Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California, Alan L. Keyes, the former Reagan administration official from Maryland, and Maurice "Morry" Taylor a Midwestern tire magnate, each received one vote.
The Dole and Alexander campaigns shrugged at the results, saying that neither campaign worked to win the straw polls.
"We have put no real effort into the straw polls," said Tony Caligiuri, a former congressional staffer who is heading the Dole effort in Maryland. "We have the real polls showing Dole [gaining] momentum and Gramm declining."
Mr. Caligiuri did say that with three months to go until the primary, Friday marked the start of the Dole campaign's increased presence in Maryland.
"We wanted to make sure everyone here had a good sense of the Dole campaign's presence," he said, conceding that little has been done to cultivate a statewide organization thus far.
Nevertheless, the Dole campaign saw to it that every Central Committee member attending the convention received a videocassette, audiocassette and literature from the Dole campaign.
"Sounds like they worked it hard to me," said Kevin Igoe, a political consultant who is one of Mr. Alexander's point men in the state.
Mr. Igoe, a former state party official, said the Alexander campaign did nothing toward the straw poll.
"Lamar's strategy is totally built on Iowa and New Hampshire," he said, referring to the critical caucuses and primary in February.
"All the sign-waving and lit[erature]-dropping in the world is going to be irrelevant if your candidate is fourth in New Hampshire," he said. "Nobody is going to do poorly in the first couple of states and then jump-start their campaign in Maryland."