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Ben Carson, Hillary Clinton lead '16 presidential field in Md.

Despite national slip, Ben Carson leading GOP field in Maryland.

Though support for Dr. Ben Carson has slipped across the country, the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon maintains a narrow lead for the Republican nomination in Maryland, a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore has found.

In the state where he lived and built an international reputation in the operating room, the first-time political candidate sits atop a crowded and unruly GOP field trying to attract a GOP electorate divided between centrist and conservative voters.

Carson's continuing strength in Maryland is striking in a state where Republicans have tended to support more moderate candidates, such as Gov. Larry Hogan, and at a time that his poll numbers nationally and in early nominating states have been falling.

"There are enough people in the state who have had personal interaction with him, or have a great deal of personal professional respect for him as a neurosurgeon," said Steve Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, which conducted the survey. "He has that going for him."

Twenty-seven percent of likely Republican primary voters in Maryland said they support Carson. Twenty-three percent backed Donald Trump — putting the billionaire businessman within the margin of error of the lead. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are both in double digits, within striking distance of the front-runners.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to hold a big advantage over her next-closest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Clinton's 33-point lead is essentially the same as it was when The Sun polled the Democratic presidential contest early last year.

Also unchanged is the low level of interest in Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor who has failed to break out of single digits anywhere, including his home state. Opponents cite O'Malley's lackluster polling in the state he led for eight years to question his viability on the national stage.

Only 7 percent of Maryland Democrats said they would vote for O'Malley for president.

Brian Mosko, a 45-year-old retired Army sergeant from the Burtonsville area, said he felt O'Malley was a strong governor, and "did a lot of good for the state." But he's not convinced O'Malley has the chops to run the country — at least when compared with Clinton.

"She is the only one with any type of experience in foreign affairs," Mosko said. "The ex-governor of Maryland — he did Maryland, and that's about it."

Because the state's primary doesn't arrive until April 26 — nearly three months after the Iowa caucuses — Maryland voters are unlikely to play much of a role in choosing either party's standard-bearer. Maryland tends to hear less frequently from presidential candidates in person or through television advertising.

Several Republican candidates did swing through the state during their party's elongated primary season in 2012. And some candidates, including Carson, Trump and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have stepped into the state briefly for fundraisers.

Carson, already something of a celebrity for his work at Hopkins, burst onto the national political scene at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, a traditionally nonpolitical event at which his address criticizing nearby President Barack Obama made him a favorite of Tea Party conservatives.

The former Baltimore County resident rose to first place in Iowa and in national polling this fall. His soft-spoken, outsider style appealed to evangelical Christians, and also Republicans wary of anyone previously elected to office.

But Carson has also faced scrutiny over often-told personal anecdotes, such as a suggestion first raised in his 1990 autobiography that he was offered a "full scholarship" to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. More recently he has faced criticism for foreign policy statements, such as his assertion that China is engaged in Syria's civil war, a claim that has been widely refuted.

Even as Carson has blamed the news media for the controversies — a strategy that has worked for him in the past — his polling has slid. Trump has held a lead in polls conducted nationally and in Iowa since the end of last month. Several recent polls in New Hampshire have placed Carson third or fourth in the field.

Suzanne DiFranks, who lives near Ocean City, hasn't settled on a candidate, but she's leaning toward Carson.

DiFranks, a 74-year-old evangelical, learned of Carson from his prayer breakfast speech. She believes some of the controversy swirling around him is manufactured — a reaction to a candidate who is willing to say things that are unpopular.

"I believe he's telling the truth," she said. "Everybody is looking for someone who is going to come out and be honest and tell us what's going on."

Carson performed better in the Baltimore region, including Baltimore County, than any other Republican candidate, the poll found. Trump won more support in the Washington suburbs of Montgomery County and Prince George's counties.

Both Rubio and Cruz enjoy significant support among the state's Republican voters, possibly reflecting their rise nationally after several strong debate performances. Rubio, backed by 16 percent of Republican voters, has eclipsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once considered the leading contender to bring the party together.

"Rubio has solidified a position as the establishment alternative in Maryland," Raabe said.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

About this poll

Results are based on a survey of 419 likely Democratic primary voters and 307 likely Republican primary voters done by OpinionWorks of Annapolis for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs and Schaefer Center for Public Policy. The survey was conducted by telephone, both land-based and cellular, by trained interviewers from Nov. 13 to Nov. 17. Voters were randomly selected for interviews from a voter file provided by the State Board of Elections.

The margin of error for the Democratic primary is +/- 4.8 percentage points. The margin of error for the Republican primary is +/- 5.6 percentage points.

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