By VEENA TREHAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Feb. 9, 2008) - With their "Hillary Clinton" signs bobbing in time to music by U2 and Bruce Springsteen, several hundred Marylanders put proof Friday to what lawmakers had hoped all along in moving up the state's primary date: Maryland finally matters in presidential politics.
The rally at the Annapolis State House—as well as recent and planned visits by both Republican and Democratic presidential front-runners—was a clear signal that presidential politics is energizing the electorate for Tuesday's primary.
"This year Maryland's going to make a difference," said Gov. Martin O'Malley at the event that featured several prominent state politicians speaking this sunny day.
Late primaries and a reliable tally in the Democratic column have, until now, left Maryland to irrelevance in presidential politics. But the legislators' decision to move up the March primary in this neck-to-neck race is paying off—the candidates are fighting for Maryland's 99 delegates through local ads and appearances that are expected to bring record numbers of Marylanders to vote next week.
While Maryland has been reliably Democratic, Republicans are looking to the state as well. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the clear GOP leader, took home an endorsement from former Gov. Robert Ehrlich at the Baltimore County Lincoln-Reagan dinner Thursday evening. And his chief rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is rallying young Republicans at the University of Maryland College Park today.
Maryland House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, says the state's past—that includes votes for the last four Democratic presidential candidates—has led to less activity.
"Many candidates bypass Maryland to go to states like Ohio or Florida because in the general election they play a larger role," said Busch.
"It's good that Marylanders get to see, feel and touch the candidates, and to see the media that defines and characterizes them."
Sen. Barack Obama speaks at the University of Maryland on Monday, a follow-up to an Annapolis rally by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and other Obama supporters on Wednesday.
"(Maryland) is going to be a fiercely competitive context," said Obama's National Campaign Manager David Plouffe.
The overall delegate count is estimated by the Associated Press as 1,024 for Clinton versus 933 for Obama, with 2,025 required to win the nomination. Plouffe said on Thursday that, in pledged delegates, Obama had a lead of 28.
In such a close race, the candidates are campaigning for small margins.
"We're just trying to get as much as we can on any given day," said Plouffe.
Clinton, too, is gearing up for battle, with an appearance expected Monday, and the opening of offices in the Cecil County, Bethesda, Baltimore and Prince George's County.
Marylanders are energized by the activities of these candidates and the strong field, said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.
"We have very engaging, very popular candidates," said Paulson. "We have a very engaged and interested Democratic base."
And that, plus the general enthusiasm seen across the country, is leading to expectations of record-breaking voter turnout.
The party estimates Maryland voter turnout at 1 million, almost twice the previous record of 596,000 set when Jerry Brown eked out a win against former President Jimmy Carter in 1976.
At stake now in Maryland are 99 delegates - 2.4 percent of the Democratic total. These include 70 pledged delegates and 29 unpledged superdelegates—politicians and party officials who can vote for whomever they want.
Obama tallied about the same number of votes as Clinton in a January poll, in part due to the high African-American population of Maryland. The poll by Gonzales Research was conducted before John Edwards dropped out of the race.
Another sign that the candidates are energizing the electorate is the enthusiasm among young voters. The right to vote for 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by the general election was reinstated in December. Since then, more than 15,000 have registered.
Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English was among the cheering supporters at Friday's rally.
"This is an exciting time in our election," said the black woman, sitting next to a statue of Donald Gaines Murray, the African-American student who sought admission to the University of Maryland's School of Law earlier this century.
"It's our time."