Dean still leader for Md. primary

Despite Iowa setback, Democrat can lean on strong campaign here

Election 2004 -- On To New Hampshire

January 21, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

With six weeks to go before Maryland's presidential primary, political analysts and local Democratic officials agreed yesterday that Howard Dean is still his party's front-runner here, thanks to a well-organized local campaign and the liberal tilt of one of the country's most reliably Democratic states.

But they differed over the import of Dean's third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. Some said it foreshadowed a fiercer Democratic primary here, with Dean likely to draw stiff competition from retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sen. John Kerry.

Others, however, warned against making any bets this early. A long list of key races, particularly in New Hampshire and South Carolina, is bound to markedly shrink the field before Maryland's March 2 primary, they said.

How much time and money the candidates spend in Maryland - whose tiny delegate slate pales against those of other states with Super Tuesday primaries - will hinge on how tight the race for the nomination gets by then, analysts said.

"By then, it could all be sewn up," said Paul S. Herrnson, a University of Maryland political scientist.

Primary handicapping has always been a tricky business in Maryland, where Democrats favored Paul Tsongas over Bill Clinton in 1992 and Jerry Brown over Jimmy Carter in 1976.

A poll commissioned by The Sun this month showed Dean with support from 26 percent of likely primary voters, followed by 11 percent for Clark and 9 percent for Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. Kerry drew 7 percent.

But Democratic leaders and local campaign officials said yesterday that the news from Iowa had probably already upset Dean's numbers in Maryland.

"I think it makes it more competitive with Kerry and Edwards and to some degree Clark," said state party Chairman Isiah Leggett. "Whether that ultimately changes what happens here, I'm not sure. I think a lot of it depends on New Hampshire."

Walter Ludwig, Dean's Maryland coordinator, called the former Vermont governor's showing Monday a "great wake-up call."

"It's pretty clear now that this will be a little more drawn-out contest than maybe a lot of people had hoped," he said. "We are not going to be handed this. We are going to have to earn it."

Dean is credited by both supporters and opponents with having the strongest campaign outfit here. The campaign says it has a paid staffer for Maryland and 2,000 hard-core volunteers. Dean's September rally at the University of Maryland, College Park, they like to point out, drew a boisterous crowd of 3,700.

But the Maryland campaigns of his Democratic rivals said that the Iowa results had energized their efforts and will help them make a stronger case to their national organizations for campaign appearances here.

"The Dean juggernaut has been broken," said Michael P. Novelli, a leader of what he acknowledges is Kerry's "skeletal" campaign organization here.

Michael A. Miller, Clark's state coordinator, was similarly hopeful. "You may see a lot of folks who were Dean supporters start to look at alternatives and wonder if Dean was the right guy, and I think that bodes well for us," he said.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's withdrawal from the race yesterday has already scrambled local endorsements. Reps. Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Benjamin L. Cardin, who had lined up behind their colleague from Missouri, said through their press secretaries yesterday that they would wait before deciding whom to endorse next.

Sun staff writers David Nitkin and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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