After a lively campaign, it's almost primary time

September 10, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

The 2006 primary election campaign, now in its final hours, lived up to its billing as a series of well-contested races. There was a little bit of almost everything, some of it zany, some quite serious.

We have had the nursery rhyme as mud, a family drama involving car keys and octogenarian drivers, lawn signs that eclipse houses and, in the background, war.

The Court of Appeals ruled we can't vote early, but Marylanders ought to be queuing up to cast their ballots Tuesday.

We'll be choosing leaders for the next two to 30 years. Incumbents tend to stay in office a long time. Voters might want to pay close attention at such a moment.

It's a year when important members of the Democratic old guard stepped aside - with one notable exception, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, 84. He could follow along on Tuesday, however unwillingly. (Not a prediction.)

It's another election conducted in the new age of terrorism. We will be taking our own temperature Tuesday, finding out how much urgency we feel as a community.

The outlines of trouble in our world are clear at many levels in this election: Maryland candidates include at least two veterans of gulf wars. Several others make the war a centerpiece of their campaigns. Tracy Miller, a candidate for the House of Delegates, is the mother of a soldier killed in Fallujah. Mayor Martin O'Malley's running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown of Prince George's County, was stationed in Baghdad for a year. And Mr. O'Malley has made a name for himself nationally as a critic of the nation's preparedness.

Yet there are factors that may repress turnout.

It is a year in which the impact of conservative talk radio may have an effect. The traditional newspaper endorsements and urgings to get out and vote will be important in some races.

But the nattering negativity of the talk jocks - too infrequently interrupted by knowledgeable and balanced discussion of public events - might be peaking in time to be a big turnoff. Voters may be thoroughly disgusted by politicians and government without the background noise of talk shows. And they may drop out rather than participate in the continuation of something as debased as the government they hear about on talk radio.

Yet, Marylanders may bestir themselves to show faith in the democracy their soldiers are fighting to implant overseas.

Among the questions to be answered Tuesday: How many times can a candidate endanger himself politically and still win? By making personally disparaging remarks about one of his opponents, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, Mr. Schaefer seems to be daring voters to turn him out. Maybe it's a test to see whether voters will honor him with their votes - as they always have - despite all the reasons he has given them not to.

Mr. Schaefer believes Ms. Owens started the fracas - during which he likened her to Old Mother Hubbard - when she said her decision to run against him was the equivalent of taking the car keys away from your grandfather.

In contrast with the madcap quality of that race, the Democratic Party's two leading candidates for the U.S. Senate have conducted a dance of great skill, hoping to preserve themselves - and each other - for the general election. They have chosen to discuss issues, to compliment each other and to let the voters decide.

The war has been a major factor in their conduct. Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume has offered himself as the most passionate opponent of the Iraq conflict as prosecuted by the Bush administration. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, though seen as a less forceful personality, has countered with a noticeable intensification of his own concerns, combining them with his reputation as someone who believes in the group result: problem-solving by conciliation and compromise.

The main event - November's general election - awaits. Republicans want to see if they can win two races for governor in a row. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gives them a good shot; Mayor O'Malley and Democrats believe it is their year.

The voters will decide. Be one of them.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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