Former President Bill Clinton, long a top fundraiser for the Democratic Party, lent his burgeoning post-White House celebrity status to Maryland's most high-profile races yesterday, dropping by Baltimore as part of a larger effort to rally the party's core voters and raise last-minute cash.
Clinton, who has traveled to Boston, Portland, Maine, and Providence, R.I., this week alone - and who headlined a fundraiser in Virginia yesterday after leaving Maryland - came to stump and raise money for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial bid and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's race for the U.S. Senate. Both candidates face significant Republican opposition.
The visit, three weeks before the Nov. 7 election, followed at least 15 political events Clinton has attended this month, according to the Clinton Foundation. The 42nd president has a host of fundraisers and rallies planned in 12 states between now and the election - including in Florida, California and Illinois - as Democrats work to take back control of Congress.
Yesterday's rally gave Clinton a forum to criticize President Bush and defend his own administration's record against recent attacks. It also gave him a chance to burnish his image, at least among Democrats, as a central force in American politics five years after he left Washington facing the possibility of a spotty legacy that includes impeachment.
"The country has been in the hands not of the Republican Party," Clinton said outside the new Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park in Fells Point. "It's been in the hands of the most ideological, most extreme, most right-wing section of the Republican Party."
Clinton's message, similar to the one he has delivered in cities up and down the East Coast, played well to the audience, made up of hundreds of Cardin and O'Malley supporters. Clinton suggested that Cardin, if elected, would be more open to compromise than the current Republican congressional majorities in Washington.
"We think politicians ... ought to sit down and look at the evidence, listen to the arguments, hear people's different views and put their heads together and do what's best for the country," Clinton said. "But if you have an ideology instead of a philosophy you know the answers already - the facts are kind of irrelevant."
Clinton has been an active speaker and featured guest at fundraisers since leaving office in 2001, but has stepped up his efforts this year as the nation remains split over the war in Iraq, national security policy and energy prices. A USA Today /Gallup poll released this summer put Clinton's job approval rating as president at 61 percent, compared with 36 percent for Bush.
"Bill Clinton's popularity has gotten better by the day since he's left office," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Having the megastar of your party descend on your state and your campaign is really, really significant."
Clinton's relatively brief rally was sandwiched between fundraisers for O'Malley and Cardin. The two candidates have led in public opinion polls conducted by The Sun, but have lagged in raising money for campaigns that have been increasingly defined by an intense and costly television advertisement war.
Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican candidate for Senate, had $2.1 million on hand, compared with $1.6 million for Cardin, reports filed this week show. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is seeking re-election, had nearly twice as much money as O'Malley in September - the latest month available - $8.6 million compared with $4.6 million.
Both races have attracted national political figures this year to help raise money. In the governor's race, both O'Malley and Ehrlich have committed to staying on the air with advertisements in the pricey Washington market for the duration of the campaign.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York and possible presidential candidate, appeared at a party fundraiser in Adelphi last month. Other Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, have also raised money for O'Malley and Cardin.
Republicans have brought in top figures, too, most notably Bush, who headlined a fundraiser for Ehrlich at the BWI Airport Marriott in May that officials said brought in $1 million. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani appeared for Ehrlich and Arizona Sen. John McCain stumped for Steele.
Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said she believes Clinton's visit will ultimately have no impact on this year's election in Maryland.
"Martin O'Malley's failed record and pathological habit of misleading Marylanders won't be any different tomorrow after Mr. Clinton leaves," Miller said. "Same goes for Ben Cardin, whose 40 years in elected office have brought us nothing but the broken system we now have."