Obama, McCain Top Maryland Voters' Wish Lists

By VEENA TREHAN, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON (Jan. 15, 2008) - Maryland's large black population may push Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama over the top in the state's presidential primary next month, according to a new poll.

But for Maryland voters to make a difference in the race for the nominations, no clear winner will have emerged from "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5.

The study released Tuesday by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies' shows Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton are in a statistical dead heat four weeks before Maryland's primary, with Obama edging Clinton 36 percent to 33 percent. The three point difference is within the poll's 5.3 point margin of error, meaning the two are essentially tied.

The same poll shows Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain winning the state's Republican primary, with 23 percent, but with voters still very split. Both former Arkansas Gov. Michael Huckabee and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani won 15 percent of Maryland's GOP vote in the survey.

The black vote could be critical in determining who wins the state. The poll found 63 percent of black Democratic voters would choose Obama.

Keith Haller, president of the polling firm Potomac Inc., says a black vote that often tallies in at more than 30 percent could make the difference in the race.

"When you get the consolidated African-American vote behind one candidate, that can often tip the balance," said Haller. That population was pinpointed by analysts as the key to Democratic challenger Martin O'Malley's victory over Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Blacks make up 29.5 percent of Maryland's population - more than twice the national average. The poll shows just 22 percent of black voters would vote for Clinton if the vote were today. White voters, meanwhile, favored Clinton or former South Carolina Sen. John Edwards 63 percent of the time.

In a national Washington Post-ABC News poll from Jan. 12, Clinton lost 11 percent from just over a month ago and Obama gained 14 percent, putting them at Obama with 37 and Clinton with 42 percent.

Obama's Iowa win has provided momentum to narrow the gap, an expert said.

"The biggest difference (now) is Obama is seen as having a credible chance of winning," says Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports.

Regardless of what happens in the next four weeks, the choice shouldn't be painful for Maryland Democrats. Those surveyed have between a 63 and 66 percent favorable opinion of all three candidates.

Obama and Edwards are the only main contenders who have pledged not to take campaign donations from lobbyists or political action committees. This show of ethics has allowed Clinton to eclipse the others in terms of total campaign finance dollars received.

"No matter who is ahead in Maryland at the time of the Democratic primary, voters generally will be happy with that person," said Laslo Boyd, partner at Gonzales Research.

The closeness of the race has prompted increased candidate criticisms. Most recently Clinton and Obama have argued over the influence of the top executive versus Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the struggle for civil rights.

"They could trade punches round for round and both be standing and bruised after another month," says Haller.

Such rough-and-tumble politics, plus the lack of incumbents, are stretching out the race, increasing the chance that Maryland might have a say in who wins the nomination. And that's fine with voters of the state, who moved the primary up to February from May with that purpose in mind.

Whether their votes matter may depend upon what happens on Super Tuesday. Democrats will hold elections at 22 states, Republicans in 21, and 52 percent of the total delegates will be awarded that day.

The different results of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have created what many experts say is open field on the Republican side. In the recent poll, only one Republican - McCain - drew a favorable rating over 50 percent, a finding that was mirrored in January's Washington Post-ABC poll.

Rasmussen says McCain is helped by the improving situation in Iraq and the focus of the field on conservative voters. Also giving him a boost is his record of poor performance - candidates have been saving their fire for other Republicans.

"It's very, very fluid," says Rasmussen. "Each time a Republican candidate gets frontrunner status, other candidates say here's a reason why they shouldn't be on top - that's why none of them stay there."

The extended period of uncertainty, which could lead up until the nomination, might be beneficial.

"It's a good thing for democracy to have the process play out, and to take longer to interview a person for the most important job the world," says Rasmussen. "It's important. It takes time."

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