Maryland has edged into the spotlight shining on states holding Super Tuesday primaries, with one presidential candidate and several surrogates visiting this weekend.
Though overshadowed by New York, California and Ohio, which also will conduct primaries Tuesday, Maryland has attracted former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who seeks to shore up his fading hopes for the Democratic nomination. He is scheduled to appear at the ESPN Zone by the Inner Harbor this afternoon before attending a get-out-the-vote rally in Bethesda.
Polls continue to show Vice President Al Gore, who campaigned in Prince George's County on Friday, with a 2-to-1 lead over Bradley in Maryland and well ahead in the 10 other states with primaries Tuesday.
The Republican race appears much tighter in the state, though Texas Gov. George W. Bush maintains a lead of about 10 points over Arizona Sen. John McCain in every poll. Still, neither candidate plans to visit Maryland before Tuesday to go after the state's 31 delegates.
The Bush campaign brought Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia in yesterday to meet with volunteers in Timonium and expects Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas this afternoon, visiting the Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street.
"Governor Bush is a uniter, not a divider," Gilmore told about 75 Bush volunteers at the Timonium Holiday Inn. "He proved that in Texas, where he brought Hispanics into the party, most of whom are Catholics, I would point out."
Gilmore criticized McCain for initially denying that his campaign paid for phone calls to Michigan voters linking Bush's visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina to the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the school's leaders.
"He calls it the Straight Talk Express," Gilmore said of McCain's campaign vehicle. "Let met tell you the wheels have come off that bus."
Bush camp gains confidence
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of the 2nd District, a Bush supporter, said the Maryland campaign is gaining confidence.
"We were back on our heels 10 days ago," he said. "But I think McCain overreached with those Catholic phone calls and attacks on [Jerry] Falwell and [Pat] Robertson. That's been showing up in our phone calls."
Bush's national headquarters sent four paid staffers and several experienced volunteers into Maryland last week and has bought advertising time on Baltimore television.
"It certainly has made my life easier," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who has been running the Bush campaign out of her home with only local volunteer help.
Efforts by McCain's supporters this weekend remain home-grown -- making signs in Chestertown, waving signs in Catonsville and making phone calls to independent voters telling them they can vote in the Republican primary for the first time. "Everybody's excited," said McCain's state campaign director, Tony Caligiuri. "We've got about a dozen volunteers from Virginia, county coordinators there, coming in over the weekend to help out."
John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state and unofficial historian of its electoral process, said that presidential primaries in years without an incumbent usually get a turnout of 35 percent to 40 percent of registered voters. This year should be no exception, he predicts.
"The biggest factor is how the national press plays the story leading up to Election Day," Willis said. "To the extent that they play it as if the race is over, that tends to depress turnout.
"People like to feel that a race is still competitive. As long as it is, that will push turnout toward the top end of that scale," he said.
"The race is not really being waged on the ground in Maryland, but I think you see enough campaign activity that it is not going to be like '96," when 22 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans voted in primaries. "But whether we will be as high as '92 [when 45 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans voted] is doubtful."
The unknown factor is the independents, who had never been allowed to vote in party primaries before the state Republican Party decided to open this year's. Eleven percent of Maryland voters do not declare an affiliation. That number is about one-third the number of registered Republicans.
"I don't think you will see the same kind of turnout of independents that you saw in New Hampshire and Michigan," Willis said, referring to two states where high voting by independents in their Republican primaries helped McCain to victories. "We just do not have that tradition of independents voting."
Willis, a Democrat, predicted that the national Republican Party will look into changing its rules to close its primaries after seeing independent votes go against established Republican leadership and for McCain. In Maryland, it was Republican leaders who back Bush who supported the move to let independents vote.