Obama and McCain have rifts to heal

In Focus -- Politics

May 11, 2008|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- In Western Maryland's Allegany County, where Barack Obama got less than one-third of the vote in the state's Feb. 12 Democratic primary, Bill DuVall knows his neighbors harbor misgivings about the man who appears likely to be the party's presidential nominee. "A lot of the talk I have heard hasn't been positive," said DuVall, business agent for a carpenters' union and chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee.

Democrats in Western Maryland share the same Appalachian terrain, economy and political sensibilities as their counterparts in nearby states, which Obama lost to Hillary Clinton.

"We can almost throw a rock into Pennsylvania or West Virginia," said DuVall, referring to places where Obama's efforts to woo white working-class voters have yielded limited results.

As Obama moves within reach of the Democratic nomination, the Illinois senator faces the challenge of a general election that will hinge in part on his ability to suture intra-party rifts exposed by the primaries.

The task is especially critical in swing states considered most important in the fall, but will also play out in places such as Maryland, where the November outcome does not appear to be in doubt.

A similar effort is under way on the Republican side, where religious conservatives and immigration foes have yet to fully embrace the candidacy of the man who will head the ticket in the fall, John McCain.

The fight between Obama and Clinton exposed much-discussed divides among Democrats. Blacks and better-educated, higher-earning voters support Obama, exit polls in state after state showed, while those with lower education levels and incomes backed Clinton.

The divisions were on display during last week's primaries. In Indiana, for example, six of 10 white voters backed Clinton, while nearly 9 in 10 blacks supported Obama, according to a national exit poll.

More than one in five voters in Indiana's Republican primary chose someone other than McCain, an indication of the discontent that his candidacy still faces in some quarters.

Some of those fissures were evident in Maryland's primary back in the winter. But they are expected to heal quickly, with no lasting impact, political veterans say. As a result, Maryland is expected to stay in the Democratic column in the fall.

While Obama carried Maryland in a landslide - his best showing in a state with a closed primary, supporters note - Hillary Clinton won in 7 of 24 counties.

Her strongest support came in exurban and rural places where there are fewer minorities and fewer people, and where Republicans are stronger.

For Obama to win converts in Clinton territory like Allegany, "he's going to have to direct his message more to the working people," said DuVall, the county Democratic chairman.

Those voters, he said, "feel fairly well disenfranchised," and are willing to consider McCain. DuVall said he is worried that McCain could win the presidency unless Obama makes "every effort to reach out to all segments of the working class."

In Maryland, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1, and the state has the highest concentration of African-Americans outside the South. But Maryland has occasionally shown Republican tendencies.

Six years ago, Marylanders elected a Republican governor for the first time in more than three decades, on the strength of votes in places like Western Maryland. But the 11,163 Clinton votes that came from Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties this year were dwarfed by the 135,321 from Prince George's County and 95,527 in Montgomery County for Obama.

Maryland is a "very Democratic state, and it becomes more Democratic as time goes on," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a pragmatic observer of the state political scene. As a result, he doesn't expect any surprises in the fall.

"The rifts are not severe, honestly and truly," said Miller, a Democrat. "Whichever [Democratic] candidate prevails in the primary process is going to win Maryland in the general election."

That's typical. The state's electoral votes have gone to the Democratic candidate in seven of the last 10 elections.

Years when Maryland votes Republican tend to be blowouts: Richard Nixon, in his 49-state landslide in 1972; Ronald Reagan, in his 1984 re-election; and the elder George Bush in 1988.

In Republican-dominated Carroll County, which borders Pennsylvania, Obama nearly came out ahead of Clinton. While some conservative Democrats may swing to McCain, they'll be canceled out by ultra-conservative Republicans who will stay home in the fall, predicted Martin Radinsky, a banker who is head of the Carroll Democratic committee.

Radinsky attended the county's annual Republican fund-raising dinner last month as an invited guest, and said he spotted "not one McCain sign ... not one McCain button."

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