Maryland primary works on short attention span

Delegate-richer states grab candidates' time

February 29, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Although you may not have seen a bumper sticker, button or billboard, Maryland is holding a presidential primary next week.

"We've been doing this on a zero budget," said Tony Caligiuri, state chairman of Republican John McCain's effort. "Everything is just sort of spontaneous volunteer activity."

Maryland is one of 11 states holding primaries March 7 -- Super Tuesday. But the election here is overshadowed by votes in New York, California and Ohio as well as what is essentially a regional primary in five New England states.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about the presidential primary in Maryland incorrectly said the district office of U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin is being used by the Al Gore presidential campaign. The Gore campaign is using Cardin's campaign office, not his congressional office. The Sun regrets the error.

Those places are getting most of the attention of Republicans McCain and George W. Bush, and of Democrats Bill Bradley and Al Gore. In Maryland, the campaigns are struggling with little money in the bank and few candidates in sight. With no polls taken here since mid-January until this week, they have been essentially flying blind.

Figures released yesterday by Potomac Survey Research, based in Bethesda, showed Gore widening his lead in Maryland with 58 percent of probable Democratic voters, well ahead of Bradley with 23 percent. The Republican race has tightened -- 47 percent for Bush to 40 percent for McCain.

The poll of 434 probable voters in the Democrat primary and 294 in the Republican -- all interviewed last weekend -- was the first to look at the impact of independents who can vote in the Republican primary for the first time this year.

As has been the case in other states, they backed McCain by a 2-to-1 margin. The survey predicted that about one-sixth of voters in the Republican primary will be independents.

According to the Potomac numbers, if the vote was just among Republicans, Bush would win easily -- 50 percent to 37 percent. But Maryland's Republican party decided last year to open its primary to the 11 percent of registered voters who decline to affiliate with a party. The move was backed by the state's Republican establishment, the same people who are now supporting Bush, as a way to broaden the party's appeal.

"I hope that the independents who vote are independents who are truly like-minded with the beliefs of the Republican Party," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who supported opening the primary and heads the Bush campaign in Maryland. "If that is the case, I think they will vote for George Bush."

Said Caligiuri: "It's the best gift Bush supporters ever gave us."

About 320,000 voters declined to affiliate with a party when they registered, compared with about 765,000 registered Republicans. The Democratic primary remains open only to the state's 1.5 million registered Democrats.

Despite trailing in the poll, Bradley appears to be paying the most attention to Maryland. His campaign has sent six paid staff members to the state. Others occasionally come down from his New Jersey headquarters.

"I think it's a winnable campaign for us," said Raymond F. Schoenke Jr., Bradley's state coordinator. "The Bradley national headquarters has made a commitment to winning in Maryland."

Bradley is the only candidate to have scheduled an appearance in the state -- on Sunday -- and the only one to take advantage of the five minutes of free air time offered by WMAR-Channel 2 with an interview scheduled to air tonight at 11 p.m. Both Democrats have purchased air time for ads in Baltimore.

Gore has three paid staff members in the state, but he also has the backing of the bulk of the Democratic establishment and organized labor. The difference that makes was evident yesterday at the candidates' Baltimore campaign headquarters.

Staffer Andrew Roos, a graduate student on leave from Brown University, was in the Bradley office that opened last week in Belvedere Square. He presided over stacks of signs, literature and bumper stickers amid half-finished boxes of doughnuts. At lunchtime, a few volunteers trickled in to replenish supplies.

Less than a mile up the road, the Gore campaign has taken over the district office of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. A half-dozen people were constantly on the phone and neatly stacked packets of literature were ready for distribution, all under the watchful eye of paid staffer David Hamrick who was in from the Iowa caucuses.

Susan Turnbull, Gore's state coordinator, said a similar effort is under way in Rep. Albert R. Wynn's district near Washington where an automated phone bank is calling Democrats with a pro-Gore message.

Gore "is giving this state a lot of attention," Turnbull said. "We are in constant contact with the staff in Nashville. I saw the vice president just this week. He is very aware of what is going on here."

Turnbull, like the other state coordinators, is hoping for an appearance by her candidate before next week, even just a brief airport talk. For now, though, surrogates do stand-in campaigning. Establishment backing helps with that, too, because it means a rally can feature elected officials who are well-known locally.

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