`Two-way contest' for bid to challenge GOP's Morella

Shriver has narrow lead over Van Hollen in the 8th

almost 20% undecided

The Maryland Poll

August 28, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

With less than two weeks until the primary, state Del. Mark K. Shriver has taken a narrow lead in the hotly contested race to challenge Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella, a new poll has found.

The Maryland Poll of likely voters in the 8th District Democratic primary found that Shriver leads state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. by 11 percentage points, 41 percent to 30 percent.

Former Clinton administration trade official Ira Shapiro stands third with support from 9 percent, according to the poll, which was conducted for The Sun and The Gazette newspapers by Potomac Survey Research.

But almost one in five likely voters remains undecided - suggesting the final blitz of television advertising and mailings will prove critical in the Sept. 10 primary.

"It's become a two-way contest between Van Hollen and Shriver," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac. "It's still a close election when you have a substantial `undecided' and two weeks remaining."

The outcome will depend heavily on voter turnout. Among the most frequent Democratic primary voters - those considered virtually certain to go to the polls - Shriver's lead over Van Hollen shrinks to 8 percentage points, 42 percent to 34 percent.

"In many different ways, this is a turnout game," Haller said. "A very low-turnout primary tends to favor Van Hollen."

The poll of 600 registered Democrats likely to vote in the primary was conducted by telephone Aug. 22-23 and has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points. The margin of error is larger for subgroups, such as those most certain to vote. Figures of support include respondents who say they know how they will vote, as well as voters who say they're leaning toward a candidate.

The heavily Democratic 8th District, which is based in Montgomery County and now includes a sliver of Prince George's, has confounded Democrats by electing the moderate Morella to Congress for eight terms.

This year, with Democrats needing to gain just six seats nationally to win control of the House of Representatives, the party has targeted the popular Republican for defeat - redrawing the district's boundaries to discard some Republican precincts and add Democratic ones.

In addition to Shapiro, Shriver and Van Hollen, the Democratic nomination is being sought by lawyer Deborah Vollmer, who has pledged not to spend more than $5,000 on her campaign. The poll found her support to be about 1 percent.

The battle among the Democrats to portray themselves as being able to defeat Morella - and help the party wrest control of Congress from the GOP - appears to favor Shriver, according to the poll.

"As you start to think about the stakes nationally, this could become a crux issue for Shriver versus Van Hollen," said Steven R. Raabe, executive vice president of Potomac. "Van Hollen has to make the case that he's an electable candidate come November."

Almost half of likely primary voters said Shriver has the best chance to beat Morella, followed by 17 percent for Van Hollen and 3 percent for Shapiro. When asked which candidate is most likely to stand up to Republicans, 40 percent said Shriver, 21 percent said Van Hollen and 5 percent said Shapiro.

"I'd like to see a Democrat beat Morella, and I think [Shriver] has a fairly good chance - probably the best of any of them," said Hyattsville resident Sandra Armstrong, 60, a retired Montgomery County educator.

Shriver said yesterday that he has spent much of his campaign focusing on the importance of defeating the GOP.

"I believe that our message of standing up to Republicans and the Republican Congress is winning support," he said.

Shriver also seems to have been aided by his family legacy - boosting his name recognition and helping him to raise the most money so far. He is the son of Sargent Shriver, the former vice presidential candidate and Peace Corps organizer, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John F. Kennedy.

Primary voters have favorable impressions of all three leading Democrats, according to the poll, but Shriver is known by more of them. About one in five voters do not recognize Van Hollen's name, and about one in four don't recognize Shapiro's.

"Shriver's name is important to people who are well educated but only marginally interested in politics," said James G. Gimpel, a government professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The Shrivers and the Kennedys have constituted the poster children for liberal politics in America."

The Van Hollen and the Shapiro campaigns attributed Shriver's edge to his ability to afford more network television advertising. Van Hollen and Shapiro began such ads only yesterday, while Shriver unveiled a new ad focusing on gun control.

"We think that when the average Democratic voter has heard about Chris Van Hollen's record, this gap - whatever the gap is - will readily close," said Steve Jost, Van Hollen's campaign manager. "Shriver's support is very soft, based primarily on name identification from television."

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