Primary without a punch

March 05, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

DON'T EXPECT the unexpected when Marylanders cast presidential primary ballots Tuesday. John McCain, and perhaps even Bill Bradley, may pull upsets in a few "Super Tuesday" primary states, but it's not likely to be in Maryland.

The state's political establishment has invested its prestige and influence in the two front-runners. On the Republican side, all but a handful of party officeholders are working for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Even top party officers -- who are supposed to remain neutral in primary contests -- are running as Bush delegates.

And the Bush backers also know how to work as Bushwhackers. They have effectively sabotaged efforts to get independents to vote in the GOP primary.

That seemed like a grand idea last year when party leaders won the reluctant nod of the Old Guard for an "open" primary trial run Tuesday. Independents -- but not Democrats -- can cast ballots in the Republican presidential primary.

Party leaders said they would encourage participation through mailings to all 317,000 independent voters in Maryland.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the mailbox.

John McCain entered the race.

His surprising victories in early primary states resulted from a huge outpouring of McCain enthusiasm among independents.

Suddenly, the Bush backers in Maryland -- the same party officials who had campaigned hard for an open primary -- said they couldn't find any money for a mailing to independent voters.

What a coincidence: Bush delegates made sure the state party wouldn't lift a finger to energize Mr. McCain's base.

The notion of drawing independents into the Republican big tent evaporated.

It became more important for party insiders to keep control than to broaden the party's appeal if it meant possibly losing to followers of Mr. McCain. No wonder the state GOP keeps getting hammered in Maryland elections.

So don't expect many independents to vote Tuesday. There's no tradition of open primaries in Maryland.

And the state GOP has kept independents in the dark.

The most recent Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications poll shows more than half the independents contacted didn't even know they could vote in the Republican primary.

Since Mr. Bush leads Mr. McCain 54 percent to 30 percent among Republicans, according to the Gonzales/Arscott numbers, he's the clear favorite Tuesday.

More telling for the state GOP's future is that Mr. McCain wallops Mr. Bush among independents, 77 percent to 8 percent. Those are staggering numbers.

It tells us that John McCain could give Vice President Al Gore fits in November in Maryland. He appeals to maverick voters and to the blue-collar Democratic voters -- the Reagan Democrats.

But he's unlikely to make it through the primary gantlet.

Mr. Gore, meanwhile, looks like an easy winner among Maryland Democrats on Tuesday. Potomac Survey Research puts his lead at 35 percentage points (58-23) and Gonzales/Arscott calls it at 39 points (63-24).

Among party activists, only an assortment of malcontents, idealists and political outsiders are with Mr. Bradley. As the Gonzales/Arscott analysis put it, Mr. Bradley has failed to make "a credible or coherent argument" why this sitting vice president should be denied the party's nomination.

Looking ahead to November, it's bleak for state Republicans. Mr. McCain has exposed the soft underbelly of the Bush campaign -- the candidate's conservative religious fervor that many voters find alarming; his glib, shallow answers; and his out-of-sync priorities for the country.

The Bush campaign stresses the "character" issue, the tax-cut issue and the morality issue.

All of these Republican issues are near the bottom of the public's list, according to nearly every national poll and the Gonzales/Arscott poll in Maryland

What matters to state voters are issues championed by Clinton Democrats -- preserving Social Security and Medicare and fortifying education.

If a candidate isn't talking about issues that matter to voters, it's hard to win them over. That could be the Republican Party's biggest challenge. They seem to be losing touch with the vast preponderance of Maryland voters.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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