Suburbs could be the key to primary

Many analysts agree that Howard and Anne Arundel, between Duncan's D.C. area and O'Malley's Baltimore, hold clutch votes


With the Democratic primary more than 10 months away, Roberta Isaacs, like many Maryland voters, is still in the fuzzy first stages of figuring out where she stands in the gubernatorial contest between Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Duncan is very popular in Montgomery," the Laurel clothing shop owner remarked, as a friend leafed through the racks in her store on a recent evening. As for O'Malley, "he's not a Giuliani," she said, then shrugged. Isaacs - who lives in Jessup, about equidistant from each candidate's home turf - doubts her vote would make a difference anyway.

Some political analysts would beg to differ. They suggest that because O'Malley has a strong base in Baltimore and because Duncan is popular in the Washington suburbs, winning over voters from the free-fire zones of Howard and Anne Arundel counties could be one of the keys to the primary.

"I think ultimately what's going to happen is Duncan will carry the lion's share of votes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. O'Malley will take the lion's share in the city and Baltimore County," said pollster Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. "Areas like Anne Arundel and Howard County might play a critical role."

While politicians and political experts disagree about whether O'Malley and Duncan have their geographic bases locked up or whether the race sits in the hands of voters in the suburban middle ground, many repeat variations on the theme that Howard and Anne Arundel are bellwether districts. The two counties are faithful to two gods, people like to say. Many residents follow the news media from both Baltimore and Washington; they commute in both directions for work.

"Residents of both Howard and Anne Arundel `look both ways,'" Jody Couser, the Duncan campaign press secretary, said in an e-mail. "Reaching out to voters in Howard and Anne Arundel counties is very important."

The O'Malley camp is sending out a similar message. "Our campaign is treating them as absolutely critical," campaign manager Jonathan Epstein said in Columbia late last month, just after six Howard County elected officials publicly endorsed O'Malley.

As of May, Howard County had 75,383 Democratic voters and Anne Arundel had 137,210, according the State Board of Elections. Political experts say the issues that resonate with these voters include education, growth, development, the environment and transportation.

But the notion that O'Malley and Duncan will end up duking it out primarily in swing suburban counties is too tidy for Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University. By and large, he subscribes to the premise, he said, but with "some modification."

"Both sides will try to make inroads into the territories of their opponent," Crenson said. "There are always going to be people in a politician's jurisdiction who aren't going to like something he's done or failed to do, and the competition will take advantage of that."

Duncan, he pointed out, already is trying to form alliances with African-American churches and ministers in Baltimore who are dissatisfied with O'Malley. On the other hand, O'Malley probably will try to capitalize on Montgomery County voters who feel Duncan is too cozy with developers, he said.

Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and an O'Malley supporter, argues that Prince George's County - which has more registered Democrats than any other county -will prove to be the key battleground in the primary.

"The question is whether middle-class African-Americans will vote for the mayor because they view themselves as in a coalition with the people in the city, or whether they will view themselves as geographically and/or socioeconomically more identified with Montgomery County," Schaller said.

The race will test the political influence of U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, who has endorsed Duncan, Schaller said, adding that a strong showing in Prince George's County, with its 318,565 Democratic voters, is necessary for Duncan to win, but that alone wouldn't be enough.

While the political establishment is charging ahead with endorsements and predictions, the September primary is still light years away in political time. Some voters have made up their minds, but many others are uncommitted, indifferent or less than informed this early in the game.

On her way into an Annapolis pizza shop on a recent afternoon, Amanda Potter said she approves of O'Malley's work in Baltimore.

"He's trying to increase tourism, trying to boost the city's image," said Potter, 30, who works at the Maryland Bankers Association. "I don't see why he wouldn't do the same thing for the rest of Maryland."

She's not convinced that Anne Arundel residents, caught between Baltimore and Washington, have dual loyalties, as some pundits suggest.

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