Eager to deliver Free State

Maryland Delegation

Election 2004

The Republican Convention

September 03, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Maryland Republicans return home today energized for the final two-month push to Election Day but aware that they're on their own in an uphill effort to deliver the state's electoral votes to President Bush.

State GOP delegates spent much of the week here trying to convince themselves and others that Maryland is winnable for the president and that a 12-point lead Democratic nominee John Kerry held in the most recent statewide poll could quickly be erased.

"This is the Maryland that voted for Bob Ehrlich. It's the Maryland that voted for Ronald Reagan," said state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the minority leader from the Eastern Shore. "I think it's doable."

The national party, by all appearances, is not convinced. In New York, the delegations from coveted swing states attracted high-powered speakers at their breakfast meetings. George Bush pumped up the Florida contingent Wednesday. Ohio got Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday morning, hours after his acceptance speech.

Maryland's breakfasts featured plenty of enthusiasm, but it was drummed up from within by speakers such as state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski. The delegation had to leave its hotel and join other states to hear from Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman, only to learn that the national party wanted to dispatch Maryland activists to swing state Pennsylvania for the final pre-election get-out-the-vote drive.

No way, said David Hale, president of the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners. He liked the ideas he heard for the so-called 72-hour plan and wants to use them in Southern Maryland.

The convention, Hale said Wednesday night from his seat inside Madison Square Garden, "gives you a kick emotionally, and that's what wins elections."

"No matter what you read in the paper, Maryland is a winnable state," he said.

To be sure, Republican candidates are a tough sell in parts of the state, particularly Baltimore. But Victor Clark, a director of small business development with the Governor's Office of Business Advocacy, said face-to-face communication in neighborhoods can win converts.

"We can only do what we've been doing, which is taking the message to the people in their homes," said Clark, 59, of West Baltimore, a lifelong Republican. "Everybody is trying to make it negative that the Republican National Committee is not paying attention to Maryland. But we have to make it happen."

In heavily Democratic Montgomery County, county GOP Chairman Steve Abrams said the use of new, technology-driven strategies - such as the rapid and regular e-mail distribution of campaign materials and messages - can help the outnumbered Republicans deliver just enough votes.

In Montgomery, "if I can hit a 35 percent threshold of the Republican vote [for president], it gives us a better than even chance of winning the state of Maryland," he said.

Contrary to its usual strong Democratic leanings, Maryland voted for George Bush in 1988, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Richard Nixon in 1972. Four years ago, Al Gore carried the state by 17 percentage points.

If grass-roots activists campaign on the message of Bush as a strong commander-in-chief that was on display at the convention, they can narrow the gap for him, said state Del. William J. Frank of Lutherville.

"We have to frame the debate as who will keep the country safe, Bush or Kerry. And we win that question," he said, noting that GOP presidential candidates have lost the past three elections in Baltimore County.

But Maryland's two most prominent Republicans, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, will be spending more time in other states campaigning for the president than trying to boost the turnout in Montgomery County or help the effort in Baltimore.

Last week, Ehrlich said the president shouldn't visit Maryland and should focus his resources elsewhere. Delegates spent a lot of time here countering that message. One of the more novel defenses came from Pipkin, who said the governor was just being "modest" in not acknowledging the impact of his own win on state politics.

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