With Maryland's presidential primary only nine months off, Howard County Democrats are organizing at basic levels, contacting newly registered Democrats, building their base of core neighborhood organizers and volunteers, secure in knowing they have President Barack Obama as their certain candidate.
But county Republicans say that while Democrats might be sure of whom they are supporting, it's the GOP that has the excitement for 2012, and the interest sparked by the wide range of early candidates will trump that organizing edge when the final choice is made.
"It's that time again! Volunteers needed!" reads the email that periodically comes from Michael McPherson, chairman of the Howard County Democratic Party. Early voting begins in March, he reminds people, though the primary election is April 3.
"We have about 150 people who have volunteered," he said. "We're trying to reach out, mobilize. I want to reach out to recently registered Democrats," first with a postcard, then with a follow-up phone call.
"I want to let them know we have an active party and what's on the ballot," he said, noting that Howard voters will also choose whether to return U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin to a new term, along with Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes, all of whom are also Democrats. There will also be three open school board positions, though candidates are nonpartisan.
Knowing Obama is their candidate gives Democrats an advantage in a county where Democrats have dominated in recent elections, the party chief believes.
"I can totally focus on Obama without any reservation," McPherson said, while Republicans scramble to choose a nominee.
But Loretta Shields, McPherson's Republican counterpart, has another interpretation.
Democrats "must be a little worried" to be organizing so soon, she said. She, like other Republicans, she said, believes any of the potential Republican nominees can beat Obama, given the state of the national economy.
"People have been excited about making Obama a one-term president since the day he was sworn in," she said. This campaign will be different for Republicans in 2008, when many in the party found John McCain uninspiring and weren't energized, until Sarah Palin entered the race.
"People are together," she said, and Republicans will rally behind whoever wins the nomination. She plans to hold a straw vote at August's Howard County Fair. Democrats are also preparing for the fair, seeking volunteers to renovate the party's small wooden fair booth.
Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman was willing to concede that the Democrats may have an organizing edge for next year.
"I can see that," he said. "We certainly had that when President Bush ran for re-election in 2004, but there's also something to be said about all of the [Republican] candidates. I see a lot of excitement." As someone who publicly endorsed gay marriage during this year's General Assembly session, Kittleman might be expected to have some reservations about some of the social conservatives among the GOP crop of presidential hopefuls, but he's looking at it another way.
"Every one of the Republicans running now is a fiscal conservative. Every one of them," he said. Since the economy is the big national issue, that's what will attract voters, he said.
County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, agrees that having a primary contest can generate excitement. "Clearly, a lot of energy was generated three years ago on the Democratic side." But he says having an incumbent candidate to promote is an advantage, though not the biggest advantage the Obama campaign has.
"One of the best things the president has going for him is the crop of Republican candidates," Ulman said. He also cited the hard conservative ideological limits even substantial moderate candidates like Mitt Romney must adhere to to win the nomination.
McPherson is conceding nothing. Although Obama's approval ratings may be far lower than candidate Obama enjoyed in 2008, Democrats will be out in force supporting him, the party chairman said.
"I still find enthusiasm for the president. Faced with long-term economic problems created over a decade or more, the voters know President Obama can't change everything in one four-year term. All that talk about excitement created by a large group of Republican contenders is wishful thinking," McPherson said.
"That's part of politics. "You've got to make people think that there's hope," he said.
His last politics column
Since I'm retiring this week, this will be my last politics column in The Baltimore Sun. As a Sun reporter, I have a long history with Howard County, and it's a place I've enjoyed writing about, first in 1969 when covering Howard was my first assignment at The Evening Sun, and over the last dozen or so years, writing about a much-changed county.
In January 1969, I worked from a small office on the second floor of the Wilde Lake Village Center, the only commercial center then in Columbia. Omar Jones was the first county executive then, and the entire county government fit into the small historic portion of the courthouse in Ellicott City. Route 29 was being converted from one lane each way to a divided highway. By mid-1970, I was working downtown, covering politics, doing rewrite and general assignment reporting.
I began living in Columbia in 1978 but didn't begin writing about the county again until December 1998. As someone who, like many others, lived in Howard but commuted daily to work outside the county, I quickly found out how little I knew about my home county and how it operated, but I have learned.
Howard turned out to be a delight to write about. It's a dynamic, interesting place with people not content to just sit back and let the other person do things. There's a feeling that each citizen can affect the county's future, as all the volunteers charting the county's new general plan, redrawing County Council district boundaries and revising the county charter can attest.
There's the downtown Columbia redevelopment plan, the renewal of the U.S. 1 corridor, the efforts to provide housing and health care opportunities for everyone, and the political ebb and flow — plenty to keep a reporter occupied.
I first became a reporter for the old News American in mid-1966. I worked for The Evening Sun from 1969 until it ceased to exist in 1995, and now it's time for me to go, too. I always tried to give voice to everyone's point of view, but also explain as best I could what was really going on.
Thanks to everyone who read my articles — even those who didn't like them and told me so. I also enjoyed the back and forth.