With Sen. Barack Obama looking to sweep tomorrow's Potomac primaries, Sen. Hillary Clinton unleashed powerful allies in Maryland yesterday for a strategic push aimed at traditional Democratic groups who have helped her in other states.
Former President Bill Clinton crisscrossed Maryland, calling his wife "the best change-maker I ever saw" during a speech at the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville. Daughter Chelsea Clinton made appearances in Baltimore's Belvedere Square shopping district and later went to the University of Maryland, College Park.
The vigorous activity - intended to keep Clinton competitive in the hunt for delegates even if she loses the popular vote in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia - illustrated the importance of tomorrow's regional contests in the presidential race.
If Obama wins all three Democratic primaries, he would continue momentum gained over the weekend, when he carried primaries and caucuses in Nebraska, Washington, Louisiana and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The surge was continuing yesterday, as Obama won the Maine caucuses by a healthy margin. "Seems like everywhere we go, the longer we are in this race, the stronger we get," Obama said in an interview aired last night on CBS' 60 Minutes.
On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain hopes to further solidify his front-runner status by defeating former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
While the Mid-Atlantic states appear unlikely to provide the firewall that Clinton sorely needs, the campaign competed aggressively across the region yesterday.
Bill Clinton told a crowd of 300 at the retirement community that his wife's quarter-century of experience in health care, education and other areas should not be discounted.
"You can believe that we just have to try something new, and that everybody who made good things happen and stopped bad things from happening in the last 10 or 15 years is somehow disabled from being a part of that change," he said. "Or you can believe America is a place of constant new beginnings, where you need people who know how to make change to have it happen."
In College Park, Chelsea Clinton was asked about the Obama surge and responded that she was "really proud of the broad base of support that my mom also has inspired."
After last week's Super Tuesday contests, Clinton and Obama remain close in the number of delegates needed for the nomination, although Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, noted after the Maine caucus victory that the Illinois senator picked up 57 additional pledged delegates since Super Tuesday. Still, the Democratic battle could drag on for months and could be decided by the top elected officials and party leaders, known as superdelegates.
The Clinton campaign is showing the more immediate effects of the protracted struggle. The campaign announced a shake-up yesterday, with Patti Solis Doyle out as manager, replaced by Clinton's former chief of staff in the White House, Maggie Williams.
The move comes as Clinton has struggled to match Obama in recent fundraising and is facing several weeks of possibly poor results before the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio, where the campaign feels it is strong.
Solis Doyle "has done an extraordinary job in getting us to this point - within reach of the nomination," Clinton said in a statement yesterday.
Obama allies sounded optimistic about their prospects this week. They boasted of their army of 3,000 volunteers and said that Obama's scheduled appearances today at rallies in College Park and Baltimore should draw overflow crowds.
"There is an excitement in the air that I have not seen in my 25 years in public office," Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who is co-chairman of Obama's Maryland campaign, said in a conference call with reporters before heading to a Cambridge rally. Obama's extensive organization in Maryland has reached a "crescendo," said Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, another campaign co-chairman, who said volunteers are working from 10 local offices to make phone calls and drop fliers on doorsteps.
"We feel pretty good about all three of these contests," Obama's deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, told reporters. "We are also quite nervous about them."
According to the Web site RealClearPolitics, Obama had an average lead of 21 percentage points over Clinton in the three most recent Maryland polls. Among Republican voters, McCain was up by more than 30 percentage points in the polls, which have been inaccurate during this election season.
Obama's strength in the region is coming in large measure from black voters.
Blacks make up 29 percent of Maryland's population and could constitute 40 percent or more of the Democratic vote. Obama has gained the support of eight out of 10 black voters in recent primaries, polls show.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Clinton supporter, dismissed yesterday concerns that a nominee who was not the choice of so many black voters would be bad for the Democratic Party.