In the state's first large-scale campaign event of the 2012 election cycle, Maryland Democrats hosted their party's national leader Wednesday for a rally intended to energize voters and drum up support for President Barack Obama's re-election.

The visit by Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz also came as races in two of Maryland's recently redrawn congressional districts are heating up rapidly as the state's April 3 primary nears. A crowd of potential candidates is now circling each of those districts.

"Next year is going to be one of the toughest national elections that we will face," Wasserman Schultz said in an address that focused largely on the presidential race. "In 2012, we need to send Barack Obama back to the White House ... and add more Maryland Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives."

Despite sagging poll numbers, Obama is expected to do well in blue-leaning Maryland, where he won with 62 percent of the vote in 2008. Gaining more attention here is the 6th Congressional District, formerly a conservative and rural stronghold that was redrawn during last week's special session of the General Assembly into a battleground race.

The district, currently held by Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, offers Democrats one of their few opportunities nationwide to add to their numbers. For his part, Bartlett has stated adamantly that he intends to seek re-election in his new district, which now includes a large portion of suburban Montgomery County.

"This is to bring out all the grass-roots supporters who have just been itching to get started," Maryland Democratic Party chair Yvette Lewis said of the rally. "This is a sleeping giant that is going to wake."

Maryland Republicans — still smarting from the battle over the new map — dismissed the importance of Wasserman Schultz's presence.

"All it does is underscore the unfairness and the poor treatment of the people in the 6th District and other rural parts of the state," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. "It begs the question of why the governor chose to do partisan politics instead of creating a third majority-minority district."

Critics, led by Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat, argued that the new congressional map signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley dilutes minority voting rights in Montgomery County. Wednesday night's rally marked the first time Edwards and O'Malley have shared a stage since the legislature approved the new districts.

Edwards initially cited a scheduling conflict she said would prevent her from attending the rally — which was held at a school located just outside her old congressional district — but a spokesman said Wednesday she had cleared her schedule.

The race in Edwards' 4th District has grown increasingly crowded in recent days, as two possible Democratic candidates have said they are considering challenging her in the primary. A spokesman for former Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey said he is eyeing a run. And Anne Arundel County Council member Jamie Benoit has said he is also looking at the race.

The rally also included Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is up for reelection next year, and Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. Neither is expected to face difficult campaigns.

"There are folks that are saying that we are not enthusiastic, but we have too much to fight for," Cummings told the crowd of several hundred. "It's important that you be able to say I was part of making a difference."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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