Primary setup may aid McCain

Independents are wild card for GOP

February 04, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Independent voters, so crucial in the New Hampshire primary, where all the presidential candidates tried to win their votes, will be wooed only by Republicans in Maryland -- with an unknown impact.

On March 7, the 12.4 percent of Maryland's approximately 2.6 million registered voters who have not declared their political allegiance will be allowed to cast Republican ballots, but only registered Democrats can vote for the Democratic presidential nominee.

The open primary pleases supporters of Republican John McCain and leaves backers of Democrat Bill Bradley wishing their party had adopted a similar measure.

"We're thrilled about it," said David R. Blumberg, co-chair of McCain's campaign in Maryland, of independent participation in the Republican primary. "All over the country, McCain has strong poll numbers with independents. We're going to court them here."

Bradley state coordinator Roger Berliner said, "Would independent voting enhance Bradley here? There's no question about that."

That doesn't bother George W. Bush delegate Richard D. Bennett, the state Republican Party chairman who spearheaded the effort to open the 2000 presidential primary at the party convention in May.

"I think it is important that the Republican Party reach out to independent voters," he said. "Whatever impact it has on the presidential race, it's a good thing for the party.

Figures from the Maryland Board of Elections show about 1.5 million registered Democrats, 763,000 Republicans and 317,000 independents.

Independents, technically those who decline to specify a party, have been increasing at a rate of 10 percent a year since 1994, while Republicans have grown at 4 percent a year and Democrats at 1 percent. Feb. 11 is the deadline for registering to be eligible for voting March 7.

"Part of the strength of the Democratic Party in Maryland is that you have to be a Democrat in Maryland to vote in its primary," Bennett said. "My view is that for the 12 percent of the voting population that does not give in to that pressure, that many of them will be more inclined to support Republicans."

Conventional wisdom is that independents are attracted to McCain and Bradley, who are seen as taking on their parties' established powers.

That proved to be the case in New Hampshire, where independents could vote in either primary. Exit polls found that about a third of the voters in the two primaries were independents and that McCain and Bradley each got about 60 percent of their votes.

McCain's other co-chair, Donald Murphy, a Republican state delegate from Baltimore County, opposed opening the primary.

"It's quite ironic. I'm still against it," he said. "I didn't change the rule, but I'm going to take full advantage of it. People who are disenfranchised by both parties support John McCain. He's clearly somebody who appeals to outsiders."

Pollster Carol Arscott, who has worked for a number of Republican candidates, is not so sure the conventional view of independents works in Maryland.

"It's the real wild card in this election," she said of the independent vote. "I don't think anybody really knows what's going to happen."

Arscott noted that in states such as New Hampshire, independents often choose that status at least in part to express their dissatisfaction with both political parties. That might not be the case in Maryland.

"A lot of independents here tend to be people who work for the government," she said, pointing out that the highest percentage of independent registrations is in suburban Washington.

They register independent, she said, to avoid offending whatever political party might be in power, not to take a stand but to avoid taking one.

"These are people who are tied into the establishment," she said. "So just because McCain did well with independents in New Hampshire, that will not necessarily transfer to Maryland."

Susan Turnbull, who is chairing the campaign of Al Gore in Maryland, said her candidate does better among traditional Democratic voters.

"I'm right down the middle on independents voting," she said. "On the one hand, primaries are primaries, people in that party should nominate their candidate.

"But I understand the notion that if you get an independent to vote for your candidate in a primary, if they have voted for that candidate once, they are more likely to vote for them again. Still, if you win the vote of most Democrats, shouldn't you win that party's primary?"

Murphy disagrees with opening the door to independents even if they give McCain a boost. "I think in the long run it hurts Republican registration," he said. "Independents get to have their cake and eat it, too. But I fought that battle already and came up short.

"We're having a little chuckle over here," he said. "If McCain ends up winning with independents, the Bush supporters who wanted to open up the primary are going to have some real heartburn."

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