Few sparks to kindle interest of Md. voters

Little campaigning, sense of done deal in big races are factors

March 07, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Warm weather will greet Maryland voters as they head for the polls today -- which might help turnout, because the political contests appear to be cooling off.

"I think people are getting focused on the race," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening during a lunchtime stop at Lexington Market, part of a daylong get-out-the-vote swing through the area.

"If we had done this a week ago, people wouldn't have known what we were talking about," said Glendening. "But this is Maryland, and a few days before the election, people start paying attention."

Glendening predicted a turnout of about 35 percent of the state's 2.6 million registered voters, which would make it one of the lowest in 20 years.

Although the state began to look like a campaign area over the weekend, with volunteers waving signs and stickers appearing on lapels and bumpers, Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research was not optimistic about voter interest.

"This is probably the most invisible and least active presidential primary in recent political history," he said.

"With the exception of Montgomery County, where turnout might be average because of some critical local races, all indications are for a relatively small turnout for an election of this significance," Haller said.

More than presidential contenders will be on ballots, with everything from candidates for the U.S. Senate to members of school boards being decided.

Glendening, campaigning with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was urging a vote for Democratic presidential contender Al Gore, who, according to most polls, appears certain to take the majority of the party's 68 delegates in the state.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has maintained a small but consistent lead over his rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, for Maryland's 31 Republican delegates.

Rep. Robert R. Ehrlich of the 2nd District, who is active in Bush's Maryland campaign, thinks his candidate will do well. Ehrlich said McCain's attack on religious right leaders Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell damaged him among Maryland's more moderate Republicans.

"Many of the Republicans in Maryland might not agree with the religious right Republicans, but they are still part of the party," Ehrlich said. "It was the wrong message for a big tent Republican to send."

Independents a wild card

The unknown factor for the Republican primary is the turnout of 320,000 independents, who can vote in that contest for the first time. Bush has been damaged in earlier primaries open to independents, as they have overwhelmingly supported McCain.

McCain's Maryland supporters think that will be the case and have targeted independents, calling to inform them that they are allowed to vote today. But McCain backers have done all their work without the benefit of a visit by their candidate and with little money from national headquarters.

Bush's campaign sent several paid staffers last week and devoted some money, but he hasn't visited the state. Neither has the third active candidate in the Republican race -- Alan L. Keyes -- although he is a state resident. Polls show him with about 5 percent of the vote in Maryland.

Gore and Bradley campaigned twice, but much bigger states are at stake today, including New York and California.

Sense of fait accompli

Haller said reports that Gore and Bush appear well ahead in most Super Tuesday states is one reason he thinks that relatively few Marylanders will vote.

"If anything in the world can depress voter interest, it is creating this pall of fait accompli," he said.

Haller's surveys show a low voter turnout will help Bush, while McCain will fare better if more people -- including independents -- vote. Gore's lead is so large that he is expected to win no matter how many Democrats vote.

"We win with a high turnout; we win with a low turnout," said Gore state coordinator Susan Turnbull. "We're very optimistic right now."

Marylanders will not only vote for president, but will also vote for the delegates who will go to the parties' conventions.

Other contests

Maryland's Republican voters will also choose among eight candidates seeking the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes. Sarbanes has two challengers on the Democratic ballot.

In the 2nd Congressional District -- which covers most of Harford County, half of Baltimore County and part of northern Anne Arundel County -- Republican incumbent Ehrlich is unopposed; four candidates are competing for the Democratic nomination.

In the 7th Congressional District, which covers much of Baltimore, two Republicans are battling for the right to face Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, who is unopposed. There is no contest for Baltimore's other congressional seat, the 3rd District, where incumbent Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Colin Harby are unopposed.

Republican Wayne T. Gilchrist is also unopposed in the 1st District -- all of the Eastern Shore and a portion of Anne Arundel County -- but five Democrats want to run against him.

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