Maryland Republicans, Democrats stay with party line

Mainstream gave victories to Bush, Gore in primary

March 09, 2000|By Michael Hill and William Zorzi | Michael Hill and William Zorzi,SUN STAFF

Political consultant Arthur Murphy says he knew the outcome of Maryland's Democratic presidential primary in January when he attended a meeting of the 10th District Democratic Club as it considered endorsing Vice President Al Gore or former Sen. Bill Bradley.

"From the talk in the room, it looked like it was going to be close," Murphy said yesterday. "Then [7th District Rep.] Elijah Cummings stood up and said he knew Gore and knew he could work with Gore. He didn't know what would happen if Bradley won. Gore got 90 percent of the vote that night."

Similarly, even though the national political climate blew some boisterous winds across the primary landscape, Maryland voters, both Democrat and Republican, stayed within the safety of their entrenched establishments on Tuesday -- overwhelmingly backing the two candidates endorsed by their party leaders.

Neither of the insurgent candidates -- Bradley and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- could convince Maryland voters that there was a reason to buck party leaders.

"Gore's a sitting vice president, the closest thing you can get to an incumbent," Murphy said of the candidate who took two-thirds of the votes in Maryland's Democratic primary. "Bradley never made a case for getting rid of him."

On the Republican side, supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush mobilized over worries that independents -- allowed to vote in the Republican primary for the first time -- could give McCain a victory. Bush won easily.

"When observers began to focus on the fact that opening up the primary to independents may have been a mistake for Bush supporters there was no doubt that there was a coming together of the Republican hierarchy," said Steven R. Raabe, executive vice president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda polling firm.

Bush backers "got scared that they might lose, and they completely mobilized their forces -- which is what a campaign is supposed to do," he said.

And they had forces to mobilize, as the Bush campaign was led by Ellen Sauerbrey, who built a solid, loyal grass-roots organization of core Republicans statewide during her two failed runs for governor in 1994 and 1998.

Raabe and fellow pollster Carol Arscott, often a Republican consultant, said polls that showed Bush with a slim lead over McCain in the state a week before the primary were accurate. "What happened was that all the undecideds went for Bush," Arscott said.

Both pointed to McCain's attack on the leaders of the religious right as a decisive moment.

"Despite the fact that Maryland does not have the Christian Coalition presence that Virginia has, I think true-blue Republicans looked at it and it left a truly bad taste in their mouths," Raabe said. "We were in the field [polling] when McCain was just peaking. He did literally collapse in the last eight to 10 days."

With a win for Bush in the books, the Maryland Republican leaders who were worried about their decision to let independents vote are now saying it was a good idea.

"I think it was a successful experiment," said Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County. "In order to vote in the Republican primary, an independent has to pay attention to the debate in the Republican Party and Bush-McCain was a race between two real Republicans. I think we moved toward our objective of wooing those independents to the party."

Exit polls show about 40,000 independents -- about 12 percent of all voters who decline to affiliate with a party -- voted in the state's Republican primary. They made up about 11 percent of the total GOP vote and supported McCain over Bush by a margin of more than 2-to-1. But that was not enough to overcome Bush's similar margin among the much larger group of registered Republicans.

McCain backer Del. Donald E. Murphy of Baltimore County -- one of three of the 49 Republicans in the General Assembly to support the Arizona senator -- was disappointed that so few independents voted.

The local McCain campaign had focused on calling independents and telling them they could vote. But, Murphy said, "We just didn't get the word out."

State Republican Party Chairman Richard Bennett, a Bush delegate who pushed for opening the primary, said he was pleased with the result but did not know if future Republican primaries would include independents.

"That requires further discussion," he said.

Almost everyone agreed that Maryland's place in the Super Tuesday primary extravaganza left an empty feeling the day after. With the nomination races essentially over five months before the convention and with Maryland again bypassed by the candidates in search of larger treasures in New York and California, support is growing for some sort of regional primary.

"If you had a mid-Atlantic primary with neighboring states, you would have candidates focusing on issues of concern to Marylanders," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said.

Arscott is not so sure this would make a difference. "Folks want Maryland to be significant, and that's just not going to happen," she said.

None saw deep divides coming out of the primary fight.

"This will be one of the easiest to heal that I have ever seen," Glendening, a Gore supporter, said of rifts between Gore and Bradley supporters.

"No wounds here," said Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who backed Bradley. "In the end, Bradley made Gore a stronger candidate."

Flanagan said the view was the same from the winning Republican side. "The party is clearly going to pull together," he said.

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