Assembly leaders bid for earlier primary

March 10, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

General Assembly leaders introduced legislation yesterday that would move up Maryland's presidential primary and try to transform it into a competitive, attention-grabbing contest.

The measure, requested by Gov. Martin O'Malley, would move both parties' 2008 primaries to Feb. 12 from March 4 to coincide with Virginia's. Maryland Democratic leaders also are asking the District of Columbia to align its primary and build a regional stage for candidates.

"We're not going to see any candidates in our state unless we move up the date," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports the proposal. "I'm hoping that by doing this, we can give people the opportunity to see the candidates more, so they can better make up their minds."

If other states follow through with similar proposals to advance their primaries, Maryland's would be held the week after a 19-state mega-contest on Feb. 5. - dubbed "Super-Sized Tuesday" - that includes contests in California, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida.

"Anybody who's left standing after the 5th will know that the path to the presidency is straight through Maryland," said Terry Lierman, chairman of the state's Democratic Party.

Donna Brazile, a member of the Democratic National Committee who led Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, said the change would do little to make Maryland a significant factor in the race for the White House.

"It's a mistake for states to believe this will somehow or another get them more attention," she said. "A campaign is going to set up an office in Maryland, which happens anyway, appoint a state director, press secretary and fundraiser and then leave 100 bumper stickers and call it a day until the Iowa caucuses."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley, said the governor hopes the change would give more attention to the concerns of voters in the Mid-Atlantic region but recognizes the window would last for a short period.

Recent Maryland primaries have offered the state's voters little in the way of razzle-dazzle, and the state's Democrats have about a 50-50 record of picking the party's eventual nominee.

The last year Maryland's primary garnered much attention was in 1976, when California Gov. Edmund "Jerry" Brown - now that state's attorney general - concentrated his energies here at the expense of other primaries and defeated Jimmy Carter by more than 67,000 votes.

Bill Clinton lost Maryland in 1992 to Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas after largely ignoring the state, particularly the Washington suburbs, and concentrating on the South.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the bills before the General Assembly are responses to other states' efforts to move up their primaries.

The current order is Iowa's Democratic and GOP caucuses tentatively scheduled Jan. 14, followed by the Nevada Democratic caucuses Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary Jan. 22.

These states hold the most influence over presidential candidates. However, some strategists believe the new Feb. 5 mega-primary could change the dynamics of the campaign season in unpredictable ways.

Curtis Gans, director of American University's Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said it would make presidential campaigns even more money-driven, big-name affairs.

"You're giving candidates more time to hand their campaigns over to consultants who can savage each other," he said. High-profile candidates - former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and U.S. Senators John McCain on the Republican side, and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama among the Democrats - have accelerated fundraising in response to the schedule.

"If we stay back, the nominee is going to be selected by the time we have our primary," which depresses turnout, Busch said.

A spokeswoman for Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he would be open to a change but added that it would require approval from the District of Columbia Council. Fenty's motivation would be to garner more attention for a push to give the district greater voting rights in Congress, he said in a statement.

Yesterday, Maryland House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell said that the proposal to move up the date might have merit, but he was irked that Democrats had not consulted with his party before introducing the legislation.

"I'm not sure I have a concern with moving the date, but with a change this large, it would be prudent to consult with the minority party leadership," he said.

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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