`Swing-state envy' has Maryland feeling blue

Border electoral areas buzz with campaign blitz -- but not the Free State

Election 2004 The Race For President

September 05, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

For political junkies, life in a blue state isn't all that colorful.

The presidential campaign, which shifts into overdrive after Labor Day, will rage just over Maryland's borders, but not within. Pennsylvania's electoral votes are up for grabs, as are those in Delaware and West Virginia. Airwaves there will be jammed with candidate commercials, and mailboxes will be stuffed with brochures. Nominees George W. Bush and John Kerry - or high-wattage surrogates - will parachute in to woo undecided voters.

But here, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 and Kerry holds a solid double-digit lead in the polls, fans of election-year politics are stuck in the nosebleed seats.

"I suppose there is a little swing-state envy," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat. "They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on television, and we don't see it."

To be sure, Quinter and other Democrats want to keep it that way. If Maryland turns into a toss-up, they say, it means Kerry will have squandered a major advantage.

"I'm very happy that Maryland is not a competitive state," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County.

Local Republicans streamed from the national convention in New York's Madison Square Garden last week convinced that an ascendent Bush can eradicate Kerry's lead in Maryland. But unless that happens, things will remain quiet.

For now, activist Democrats and Republicans alike have plans to travel out of state to campaign in places where their efforts will have more impact, even as the state parties try to put their grass-roots machines to work at home.

"You are going to see an organizational battle," said Kevin Igoe, a GOP strategist. "It's mostly below the radar screen, without a lot of visibility."

After attending a series of luncheons and briefings in New York on Bush campaign plans, GOP national committeeman Louis M. Pope said, "Maryland is not in their national strategy."

"If the grass-roots effort can get the campaign into single digits, it would get on the targeted media list," he said.

Although Maryland voted for a Republican for president as recently as 1988, the state's lopsided registration statistics mean "you start out with a natural gap in every statewide race," Pope said.

"You can close it based on the strength of the candidate," as well as the aggressiveness of the campaign, Pope said. Part of the reason Maryland voted for George Bush over Michael S. Dukakis in 1988, he said, was that "the national campaign worked the Washington media market because they needed Virginia."

In recent weeks, Kerry has been running television advertisements in Northern Virginia, where the campaign senses it can make headway in what is reliably a red state. (Pope said the ads are not currently running, however.)

"I don't think Virginia is completely out of the question," said Barve, the Montgomery County delegate. "The very fact that it is under consideration bodes well for the Democratic Party."

Strategist Igoe called Kerry's Virginia effort "foolish," but he doesn't mind. Part of the game-within-the-game of a national campaign, he said, is enticing candidates to spend money in places where they won't make headway, wasting their resources.

"It becomes a huge chess game, nationally," he said.

But even if poll numbers shifted and Bush showed major gains in Maryland, that's no guarantee the state would get much more attention. By then, Bush could have built a commanding lead on the way to an electoral rout - a prospect few currently predict.

"If Maryland goes for Bush, it is a national landslide," Pope said.

Not all Marylanders are deprived of the presidential buzz. Much of the Eastern Shore falls within the Wilmington, Del., media market, so Salisbury-area television viewers are getting a heavy dose of Bush and Kerry messages.

"It feels like we're in the campaign," said state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the chamber's Republican leader from the Eastern Shore.

The November ballot will also include races for eight congressional seats and a contest for the U.S. Senate pitting a Republican challenger, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, against incumbent Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski.

An optimistic Pipkin, for one, says he can benefit by the lack of activity from the Bush campaign.

"For me, it creates an environment where my message gets out," he said.

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