Prince George's pivotal in '06 vote

High number of voters is key for Democrats, GOP


Where did Kweisi Mfume go for support when his U.S. Senate campaign was lagging, and where did he go to celebrate good news?

The same place where Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin has gone to church nearly a dozen times since announcing for Senate. The same place Mayor Martin O'Malley went for a casual chat with voters right before announcing his campaign for governor. The same place Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele made official his Senate bid. The same place where talented young politicians are in high demand as lieutenant governor candidates:

Prince George's County.

"The '06 election is going to be won or lost in Prince George's," said state Sen. Ulysses E. Currie, a Democrat from the county. "The governor was in Prince George's two days ago. Mfume was there. Ben was there. O'Malley was there. Everyone realizes you have to go through Prince George's."

The story of the 2002 election was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s ability to win over swing voters in moderate and conservative suburbs around Baltimore. But politicians and strategists from both parties say that demographics, voting patterns and the dynamics of this campaign will make Prince George's a pivotal battleground in 2006.

The county has long been neck-and-neck with Baltimore City as the state's most solidly Democratic jurisdiction - in presidential and gubernatorial races, both routinely give the Democratic nominee more than 75 percent of the vote.

But in raw numbers, the growing suburban county has far eclipsed the city. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2002, beat Ehrlich by nearly 106,000 votes in Prince George's. She won Baltimore City by 81,000 and Montgomery County by 67,000.

By itself, Prince George's offset Ehrlich's margin in 16 other counties combined, though his margins in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, where turnout was high, were enough to carry him to victory.

Since then, more than 47,000 new Democrats have registered to vote in Prince George's. The county has the third-most registered voters in the state, behind Montgomery and Baltimore counties, and the most registered Democrats.

"Let's hear it for the Democratic bastion of Maryland," County Executive Jack Johnson, a Democrat, said at a recent Mfume fundraiser in Clinton. "You can get votes on the Eastern Shore, Baltimore or any other place. But to get elected, you have to go through where? Prince George's County."

County leaders say that a heavy turnout from the new Prince George's voters in support of the Democratic nominee could make it hard for Ehrlich to win statewide. Whether that will happen, Prince George's Democrats say, depends on how prominently the county figures on the party's ticket.

"For the Democratic Party, it is important that you have a ticket coming out of the primary election that reflects the values, the interests and the political might of the party," said Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat. "You're going to have to see one, if not two, Prince Georgeans on the ticket."

Speculation about Brown's future, and that of State's Attorney Glen Ivey, was so intense that both recently took pains to dampen speculation that they would run for lieutenant governor, even though O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan both said they were far from offering a running-mate slot to anyone.

Brown has said he is interested in running for attorney general, and Ivey has said he's running for re-election.

Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, calls Prince George's "the big kahuna" for Maryland Democrats, especially given the gains in voter registration there. But he said the issue will be generating a big voter turnout, something Townsend failed to do in 2002, when a smaller percentage of voters cast ballots than in the previous two gubernatorial elections.

"They've got to be energized to turn out and vote," Walters said. "They were not energized last time, and so I think that the Democratic Party is going to have some investment in trying to get a situation where [potential voters] do feel they've got something to turn out for."

That's what Ehrlich did last time when he picked a running mate from Prince George's. Many of the state's political observers believe he might do it again. There is speculation he would turn to former County Executive Wayne K. Curry - an Ehrlich-friendly Democrat - to replace Steele on the ticket, a move that could eat into Democrats' advantage in the county and make statewide victory all the more difficult for that party's nominee.

Despite Prince George's Democratic leanings, the governor said he's not conceding the vote there. In an interview about the importance of the county, Ehrlich pointed to "my hundreds of visits, my activism, my funding, my relationships there. ... We know we under-performed there last time, dramatically."

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