Think Bush can't win Maryland? Think again

September 26, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

SEN. BARBARA A. MIKULSKI, as safe a Democrat as there is outside of Massachusetts, is running scared.

Her opponent, state Sen. E. J. Pipkin, probably has little hope. But what if President Bush wins or runs strong in Maryland? A poll released last week by Survey USA calls the presidential race even in this state, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the nation. If you're a Democratic candidate, you have to think he might have coattails - spill-over support that helps Mr. Pipkin.

So, Senator Mikulski is out there renewing her contract with the people, fulfilling promises with uncommon alacrity: $400,000 each for renewal projects in Dundalk and Randallstown, money for various other needs - all on track, she says. She has the power to make it happen, she says - a seat on the Appropriations Committee, a career-long devotion to making government work for you.

But what's really going on?

Republican successes are what's going on. That, and the dynamic of this presidential campaign.

If fear is the dominant force of this presidential election and if Mr. Bush is the primary beneficiary of that fear, why would Marylanders be immune? You can say it's fear-mongering by expert fear merchants, but Maryland is not a fear-free zone.

Democrat John Kerry is said to be a strong closer. But if the race is close in Maryland, he'll have to be a world-class sprinter to win the job.

And there's that other reason Maryland might go for Mr. Bush in 2004: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Mr. Ehrlich proved once again that a Republican can beat a Democrat in Maryland in spite of the state Democrats' 2-1 advantage in voter registration. If the Democrat is perceived as weak and runs a bad campaign, the Republican can win. And then Republicans get stronger.

"Governor Ehrlich came in, he cut the budget, he kept the programs, the necessary programs that are out there in the state. Nobody's suffering, people aren't dying in the streets," says James Pelura, head of the Bush campaign in Maryland.

The GOP in Maryland is a much stronger political animal than it once was. Voter registration between 2000 and this summer is about even for the two parties, a win for the GOP since Democrats have tended to lead in that important area. Republicans thank their governor for that political muscle.

In some Maryland counties, weak Republican candidates have been able to knock off experienced Democrats. Some in the GOP fear competition from their own ranks more than from Democrats.

The state GOP has yet to prove it can govern. And some ideological tensions remain in the party, but they are milder - and pushed to the background. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican who has been supportive of gay rights, was not at the New York party convention. Nor was Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the most conservative of Maryland Republicans, who opposes gay rights. Fratricidal revelry is out.

The reason for this behavior is pragmatic, says Baltimore Republican Victor Clark. "Political victories," he observes, "are always won and lost in the middle of the road. Smart political players identify their weaknesses and correct them."

David Craig, the mayor of Havre de Grace and a delegate to the convention, remembers when there were only two other Republican officeholders in his county. Today, it's the Democrats who can caucus in a phone booth. "We don't want the party to fight about particular issues," he says. "You know, it's like airing your dirty laundry. We're not going to do that. Winning is more fun."

The new strength surprises even some Republicans, including Governor Ehrlich, who said a few weeks ago that President Bush should spend his time and money in another state. Maryland, he thought was, out of reach.

If this state is "in play" now, it's already a victory for the Maryland GOP. If Mr. Bush wins, it will be a dramatic upset - but it won't be as surprising as Democrats might want to believe.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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