Votes count

September 13, 2002

ALL THOSE Marylanders who were too busy, too bored or too disaffected to vote in Tuesday's primaries -- about two-thirds of those registered -- might want to make a bigger effort for the November general election.

The state will likely play a key role in determining whether Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives, an outcome that could in turn have a great impact on the Bush presidency.

Two Maryland seats currently held by the GOP are under serious threat from Democrats. With the two parties now only six votes apart, just a handful of competitive races across the nation -- including Maryland's two -- will tell the tale.

Most attention will be focused on the 8th District, where state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. was able to parlay grassroots support from backers of various causes he's championed to overcome Del. Mark K. Shriver, a fellow Democrat who earlier appeared to have the edge in the mostly Montgomery County district.

Mr. Van Hollen's impressive record during his 12 years in Annapolis gives him a mighty boost in a November matchup with Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. She barely won election to her eighth term two years ago against a little-known challenger, and will have to rely on something more substantive than her personal warmth and advocacy for federal workers to claim a ninth.

That race may look tame once the fur starts flying in the 2nd District, which encompasses most of Baltimore County. There, former Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who learned her style from stevedores as an advocate for maritime interests, is poised for battle against County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Democrat for whom the new district was tailored by his friends in Annapolis.

Tuesday's primary results suggest Mr. Ruppersberger has a tough road ahead. He finished with only 50 percent of the vote against three lesser-known challengers.

Holding the House is essential to President Bush's ability to shape legislation over the next two years. Even if the Republicans manage to reverse the Democrats' current one-vote grasp on the Senate, they won't be able claim the 60-vote majority it takes to dominate the body.

The GOP may have aided its cause in the Senate on Tuesday by booting out New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith in favor of Rep. John E. Sununu.

Son of a former governor and White House chief of staff, the three-term congressman is as politically shrewd as his father, but without the sharp tongue. He should be a tougher competitor than the oddball Mr. Smith in a race against Jeanne Shaheen, the state's Democratic governor.

Maryland voters showed up at the polls in roughly the same numbers they have in recent years. The turnout was highest -- nearly 50 percent -- in some counties on the Eastern Shore, where Republicans rescued six-term Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest from a well-financed challenge backed by conservative outside interest groups.

The same enthusiasm was evident in Montgomery County. But balloting there was confused and delayed by voting reforms put in place after the 2000 election debacle to end confusion and delays.

Problems in Maryland paled against a new round of screw-ups in Florida on Tuesday. But they need to be fixed by November. Voters shouldn't be given any more excuses not to participate.

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