GOP candidates court votes in blue Maryland

It's a long way from New Hampshire or Iowa, and Maryland's primary is 10 months away, but a growing number of Republicans are beginning to make pit stops in the Old Line State as the race for the GOP presidential nomination gets under way.

In the past three weeks, Maryland voters have gotten an up-close look at Republican candidates, possible candidates and party bigwigs, including pizza magnate Herman Cain, tea party star Sarah Palin and the top GOP budget maker in Congress, Rep. Paul Ryan.

And with the 2012 nomination battle under way, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is scheduled to hold a fundraiser Thursday in Baltimore for his presidential campaign. The architect of the 1994 Republican Revolution, whose presidential effort has gotten off to a wobbly start, also will headline an event for the Maryland Republican Party.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who opinion polls show is the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, spoke at the state GOP event last year.

"It's the frenzy of the presidential race being so wide open," the state's Republican Party chairman, Alex Mooney, said of the spate of national Republicans trekking into Maryland. "We're not New Hampshire, obviously, but they also don't want to wait until the last minute."

Because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of more than 2-1 in Maryland, the state is generally considered flyover country for presidential candidates running in the general election — even as those same national campaigns set up elaborate operations in the neighboring battleground states of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Maryland hasn't given its electoral votes to a Republican nominee since Vice President George H.W. Bush first ran in 1988.

But state Republicans say Maryland's primary April 3 could prove influential, particularly if the GOP field remains murky and voters across the country take longer than usual to make up their minds. A poll last week for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that nearly half of GOP primary voters are not satisfied with the current slate of candidates.

And while Romney leads in national polls, contenders continue to emerge. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who stepped down this year as U.S. ambassador to China, plans to enter the race Tuesday. Others, including Palin, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, are flirting with a run.

"This is a very different year from four years ago," said Rep. Andy Harris, one of Maryland's two Republicans in Congress. "At this point last time, the majority of Republicans were satisfied with the candidates … and there were clear front-runners.

"I do believe that some of the middle primaries may help elect the nominee."

The Baltimore County lawmaker hosted Ryan at a fundraiser last week but said he hasn't yet picked the candidate he will support for president. Harris said he plans to head to Baltimore after the House finishes voting Thursday to see Gingrich speak.

Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, has said repeatedly that he is not interested in running, but that has not stopped Washington speculation about his future.

Other nationally recognized Republicans who have stopped in Maryland this year include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who spoke at a conservative think tank in Baltimore County in May amid intense speculation about his presidential ambitions. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate, visited Montgomery County the next day. Both later decided against a run.

Congressional Republicans have held their annual retreat in Baltimore the past two years.

Maryland Republicans say opposition to the policies of President Barack Obama has energized party faithful in the state, making for bigger turnouts at speaking and fundraising events.

"Everybody has been charged up at the local level since Obama was elected president," said Loretta Shields, chairwoman of the Howard County Republican Party.

The group played host to Cain at a Lincoln Day dinner in early June that drew more than 300 people to the Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City. The former CEO of Godfather's Pizza delivered a fiery address in which he told the audience that if the GOP doesn't "take the nation back" by winning the White House next year, "the damage" might not be reparable "in our lifetime."

Matthew Verghese, political director of the Maryland Democratic Party, dismissed any broad significance to the recent influx of top Republican names. He described those who have come to the state as fringe candidates and said their presence demonstrates that the "GOP is really tied to the same old candidates, with the same old tired ideas."

Obama, who is running for re-election, made his most recent public visit to Maryland on April 1. He toured a UPS distribution facility in Landover and discussed electric-powered vehicles.

Verghese was quick to point out Gingrich's troubles, which began almost immediately after he entered the race a month ago. The former history professor was forced to reverse himself after criticizing his party's plan to overhaul Medicare as "right-wing engineering." This month, his senior staff quit en masse, citing disagreements over the campaign's direction.

Through a spokesman, Gingrich declined to comment for this article.

His visit will come a week after a nationally televised GOP presidential debate, the first to feature Romney, that some suggest was a symbolic starting point to the race. That debate was widely seen as benefiting both Romney, who escaped criticism of the health care plan he crafted as governor of Massachusetts, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who used the forum to announce her entry into the race.

Gingrich, who led House Republicans from 1995 to 1999, was seen as having turned in a generally neutral performance, not significantly elevating or harming his profile.

His Maryland appearances come weeks after Palin made a surprise trip to Baltimore's Fort McHenry. The former Alaska governor and her husband toured the site of the War of 1812 battle that inspired Francis Scott Key's poem that would later become the national anthem — at one point lifting a 36-pound cannonball — as they met with potential voters. On Friday, Palin discounted reports that she would decide soon whether to jump into the race.

Four years ago, in an effort to increase the region's influence during the presidential campaign, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia held their nominating votes on the same Tuesday in February, creating what came to be known as the "Potomac primary." Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain won in Maryland en route to capturing their parties' nominations.

But under pressure from the national parties, the Maryland General Assembly moved the 2012 primary back to April. The later date will also help elections officials comply with a new federal law giving military and overseas voters more time to receive and mail back their ballots.

Early states on the primary calendar include Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Critics say the schedule gives those small states a disproportionate influence on the nominating process. Many candidates pull out if they fail to perform well in the early contests.

But as a winner-take-all state, Maryland remains a valuable prize: The victor in the Republican primary captures all 37 of the state's delegates to the party's national convention. Other states divide their delegates according to the results of the vote.

Despite Democratic dominance in the general election, the state has some inherent attractions for national candidates during the primary season, said Herbert C. Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster. Proximity to Washington is one.

"Maryland's compact, it's easy to campaign in and it's got a very extensive media apparatus," he said.

But local Republicans noted other reasons for the recent high-profile visits, including the emergence of the state's tea party movement, better and more aggressive county-level organization in parts of the state and, on a broad scale, more energy from voters.

"There's been quite a renaissance in the past five years," said Eli Gold, who founded the Harbour League in 2005, the conservative think tank that landed Daniels for a visit in May. "Maryland is beginning to show some signs of life where it's worthwhile for candidates to come and show their face."