O'Malley's Clinton ties get politically thorny

O'Malley faces complications of Clinton ties

Democrats

Election 2008 Maryland votes

February 08, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

When Gov. Martin O'Malley endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary nearly a year ago, he was throwing his support behind the presumptive front-runner and building on a long-standing relationship with her and her husband's political machine.

Moreover, the risk seemed small. Three years earlier, O'Malley had backed Howard Dean, who dropped out of the race, and still landed a coveted speaking role at the Democratic National Convention.

But in recent weeks the dynamics of this year's presidential primaries have changed. Clinton is in a tight battle with rival Barack Obama. Maryland's Democratic leaders are split, with many O'Malley allies joining the Obama camp. And voters are divided, with women largely gravitating to Clinton, and black voters - a crucial constituency for Maryland Democrats - overwhelmingly backing Obama.

That leaves O'Malley pledging to do everything in his power for Clinton in a state that many pundits now predict she will lose. His inability to deliver Maryland could further tarnish O'Malley's political star at a time when his standing has been battered by voter discontent over tax increases he championed, and many political observers say his efforts on Clinton's behalf might be wasted.

"The governor would be best served by keeping his powder dry," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who hasn't endorsed a presidential candidate but predicts Obama will win the state. "He's had a fundraiser. He's endorsed her. ... He's done all he's supposed to do. Now it's crunch time, and it's already been decided by factors that he had no control over."

As national attention turns to Tuesday's "Potomac Primary" that comprises Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, O'Malley is working his political contacts and mobilizing his campaign apparatus to help get out the vote. He also plans to make appearances at Clinton events in the coming days, including one in Annapolis today.

O'Malley has long-standing ties with the Clintons. He accompanied then-President Bill Clinton to Ireland for peace talks in 1999, and Bill Clinton appeared in an O'Malley campaign commercial seven years later in the gubernatorial race. Hillary Clinton helped O'Malley raise funds in the final days of the 2006 contest.

O'Malley has traveled to New Hampshire twice for Clinton's campaign, and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown has appeared for Clinton in several states, including South Carolina and Georgia. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a national co-chair of the Clinton campaign, has lent the campaign some of her staff for the week before Maryland's primary and will headline events for her fellow senator.

Obama counts Rep. Elijah E. Cummings as well as state Comptroller Peter Franchot and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler on his side.

But some endorsements have had little effect in this presidential race. Clinton won Massachusetts despite Obama getting the nod from some of the state's political patriarchs, including both senators and the governor.

"Endorsements help but, as I can testify for my own family, both Clinton and Obama are regarded as enormously talented candidates," said former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "People are paying attention, and many voters are making up their own minds."

Kennedy Townsend supports Clinton, but her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and others in her family recently endorsed Obama.

"What O'Malley brings is the ability to get out Clinton's message in the state, to get people going door to door and to get people to the polls," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Clinton backer who helped run O'Malley's campaign in Baltimore. "But ultimately voters, especially this year, are looking at the candidates themselves."

O'Malley might have a difficult time moving voters anyway. A recent Sun poll showed he had an approval rating of 35 percent, a low ebb caused by voter discontent over tax increases and the shaky economy.

Voter enthusiasm is expected to drive turnout in Maryland regardless of O'Malley's activities, and his traditional political base, including unions, has splintered. The Service Employees International Union, for instance, has allowed local unions to decide whom to endorse. The Maryland contingent has backed Clinton but is focused instead on the 4th District congressional race between Rep. Albert R. Wynn and Donna Edwards.

"We have relatively limited resources, and that's where we really saw we could make a difference," said SEIU spokeswoman Stacey Mink.

Much of the campaign activity will be concentrated in the Baltimore area and the heavily populated Washington suburbs in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, strongholds of support for O'Malley. But the concentration of black voters in those areas would likely trump O'Malley's efforts, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland and an Obama supporter.

However, O'Malley's alliance with Clinton is not likely to cost him among blacks, 85 percent of whom backed him in 2006, Walters added. "He's not going to pay the price for his endorsement," he said.

Even O'Malley has set the stage for a possible Clinton loss, noting that exit polls have shown that many Democrats would be satisfied if either she or Obama were the nominee.

"I'm confident coming through this primary we'll all be able to rally around the winner," O'Malley said. "We're very proud of both of these candidates, and we need to make up our minds who has the experience and ability to go the distance and to turn around the huge problems facing our country."

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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