GOP areas' turn has trio in shock, awe

August 10, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE DEMOCRATS are accustomed to winning elections in Maryland, so maybe it's not the stuff of headlines when you hear Dan Rupli and Michael Day and Jim Voss doing verbal cartwheels. Except for this: They are talking about sections of the state that traditionally go heavily Republican, heavily conservative, and here are three Democratic veterans who say they cannot believe what they are now seeing in this race for president.

"I've been involved in party politics for the last 35 years, and this one's showing me stuff I've never seen," says Rupli, on the telephone from his Frederick law office. He's been stumping around the state for John Kerry.

"Amazing stuff," says Day, a college administrator talking from Hagerstown. "I've never seen anything like this."

"Something is happening here," says Voss. A retired farmer and U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator, he is president of the Democratic Club of Caroline County and a member of the Democratic Central Committee.

Voss' tone was a kind of cautious awe. Over the weekend, he went to the Caroline County Fair, near Denton. At the Democratic Party booth there, he says, "People were spontaneously coming up like I've never seen, wanting yard signs, wanting bumper stickers and pins. There's how you measure things. You never saw this in past elections around here. They're talking about the war, they're talking about the job situation, they're talking about the stock market. I've never seen this county like this."

Voss, like any political player, is hungry for signs of hope, and happy to trumpet any he might see. But he is also careful enough to distinguish hope from hyperbole.

Then there's Day, who lives in Hagerstown but works at Community and Technical College of Shepherdin West Virginia. He is chairman of the Potomac Alliance, a Democratic group working the traditionally Republican eastern panhandle of West Virginia.

"I went to the Berkeley County Youth Fair," Day was saying yesterday. "Four years ago, the county went heavily for George W. Bush. The whole day, we've got people one- and two-deep at the table registering to vote, wanting to volunteer. Amazing crowds. These are people who raise farm animals, who have always voted Republican."

Day says he has "close to 300 Maryland volunteers looking to work in West Virginia." Maryland, they figure, is an easy Democratic win in November because of traditionally heavy votes in Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs - so volunteers here are being dispatched to West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

"I've been around campaigns for the last 30 years and never seen anything like this," Day says. "People are coming up to us and saying they were lied to about the war. These are people with children in the military - some are in Iraq. They don't feel the administration was honest with them. Even people who are Bush supporters are saying, `Where are the weapons of mass destruction?'"

Day has taken a leave of absence from his college administrative job to work on the campaign. In Hagerstown, he says, "The issue is jobs. We've lost some of the big manufacturing jobs here. Mack Trucks downsized heavily. Now you've got people working phone banks, making calls for Citibank. Those jobs don't pay as well as the old jobs."

Last week, Washington announced 32,000 jobs were added to payrolls in the last month. They were anticipating 230,000. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped and dropped, while Standard & Poor's 500 index and the Nasdaq composite index fell to lows for the year.

Then there's Rupli, out of Frederick. He talks in exclamation points. He talks about years past, "when you'd drive halfway across the state to talk to Democratic groups, and there are 10 people who show up and you say to yourself, `Why am I wasting my time?'"

"But now," Rupli says, "I'm going to places like Chestertown and Easton, and there's 150 people, easy. Hell, I used to wonder if there were that many Democrats in the whole county. A few weeks ago in West Virginia, we had a fund-raiser in Shepherdstown, across from the Antietam battlefield. We raised $100,000. That's more money than Al Gore raised in the whole state four years ago.

"We're seeing traditional conservatives who are offended by the deficits. They're worried that the guy at the helm is out of control."

The Republicans slough off such talk. They mention Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican governor here in 36 years. They mention polls calling this a toss-up election.

They have a point. But it's remarkable to listen to three veteran Democrats who are hitting traditional Republican strongholds, who say they cannot believe what they are seeing.

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