Md. backers of Kerry await a groundswell

No prominent official has endorsed his candidacy

Election 2004

On The Campaign Trail

February 05, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Once dismissed as a political dead man, John Kerry has soared to the front of the pack, nailing victories in presidential primaries from New Hampshire to Arizona and leaving "Deaniacs" in the dust.

But in Maryland, a place of quirky politics and unusual allegiances, the Massachusetts senator has yet to be endorsed by a single prominent official. And it is not Kerry, but the stumbling Howard Dean, who plans to open a state headquarters in Baltimore next week.

Spokesmen for the state's top two Democrats - U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes - said yesterday that they will make no endorsements.

Meanwhile, the three Maryland congressmen who backed Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who left the race after a dismal finish in Iowa, are still ruminating over whom to endorse next.

One of them, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, has started a presidential poll on his Web site to sample the mood of constituents. "It's one of the factors I will take into account," he said yesterday, promising a final decision at least a week before the state's March 2 primary.

Maryland is a noted Democratic bastion - just three states gave a higher share of votes to Al Gore in 2000. But it has made some against-the-grain choices over the years.

Democrats here chose Paul E. Tsongas over Bill Clinton in 1992, Jerry Brown over Jimmy Carter in 1976. And in 2002, the state elected a Republican governor for the first time since 1966, passing over a Kennedy.

As Democrats in other states line up behind Kerry, his supporters here are still waiting for the groundswell.

Michael P. Novelli, a Maryland coordinator for Kerry, said the campaign is on the cusp of snagging a few prize endorsements. But he was not yet ready to name names.

"I talked to one state legislator today," he said yesterday. "He's on the Dean slate, but he needs to wait through Saturday at least to see how Washington and Michigan are going to go."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who in December became one of the first officials in the state to endorse Dean, says he does not regret choosing a man with a kindred urban policy and a strong stand on Iraq.

"I'm with Dean, I went with Dean, I'm glad I went with Dean," O'Malley said yesterday. "I'm not glad that he hasn't won any states yet."

And Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who endorsed Dean last month and stood by him after his New Hampshire loss, also remains faithful.

Local campaign officials for all the major Democratic presidential candidates said yesterday that they planned to ramp up their presence in Maryland. The once-skeletal Kerry operation here says it has enlisted battalions of volunteers, plus a paid fund-raising official and political director.

Campaign workers for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark said they, too, will likely send paid staffers to the state, particularly if they pull strong showings in the Virginia and Tennessee primaries Tuesday.

The moves signal that the candidates have not written off the state, whose primary typically comes too late in the season to draw much notice.

Political analysts and Democratic leaders say a continuing surge by Kerry could easily sideline Maryland. The country's 19th-most-populous state sends 98 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, where 2,162 are needed to win.

That first number is nothing to dismiss, except that March 2 is Super Tuesday, when voters in 11 other states - including California and New York - also head to the polls.

"That's a recipe for some very difficult attention-getting," says Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist.

Dean's campaign leaders in Maryland say they are undeterred by a string of disappointing finishes in other states. They plan to open a state headquarters near downtown Baltimore early next week. Volunteers there will call thousands of voters, organize door-to-door canvassing drives and mail literature to 300,000 to 400,000 households, said Walter Ludwig, Dean's state coordinator.

"What continues to interest me," he said, "is that despite the fact that we've taken some pops, the base of supporters here continues to grow and continues to be pretty loyal."

The former Vermont governor led his rivals in a Maryland poll of likely voters in early January. By Dec. 30, the last date for which figures are available, Dean had raised $584,093 from people with Maryland addresses donating at least $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group in Washington.

That was followed by $477,059 for Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who withdrew from the race Tuesday night, and $355,375 for Kerry.

"What has been proven by Iowa and New Hampshire and the other states is that it isn't really about the organization," said an unfazed Wayne L. Rogers, Maryland chairman for the Kerry campaign. "This is about the candidate and his message. And John Kerry's message has been resonating with voters."

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