The protracted battle for the Republican presidential nomination is about to thrust Maryland's GOP voters into the unusual position of having a voice in a national political contest even though they live in one of the country's most reliably blue states.
With less than two weeks to go before the April 3 primary, Republican operatives in Maryland say they are scrambling to bring the presidential campaigns to the state. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be the first, arriving today — hours after winning the Illinois contest — to lead a town hall meeting at an American Legion post in Arbutus.
Maryland is not an early voting state like South Carolina and it does not have the political cachet of Florida, but it does offer 37 delegates — more than Michigan, Arizona or Colorado — at a time when the specter of a messy GOP convention showdown in August has put each candidate in the hunt for every available delegate.
The primary comes at a pivotal moment for Romney, who has a significant lead in delegates but has nonetheless struggled to break away from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and convince skeptical conservatives that he is the best candidate to take on President Barack Obama in November.
"The Romney campaign always suspected this would be a drawn-out fight," said former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the chairman of Romney's campaign in Maryland, who was instrumental in steering the event to Arbutus, where he was raised. "We strongly suspect he's strong here."
Wisconsin and the District of Columbia also hold primaries April 3. Louisiana votes Saturday.
Local party leaders had hoped that Romney would also visit Frederick and Annapolis, but his campaign had stressed from the beginning that those events were iffy. Romney is scheduled to speak only at American Legion Post 109 on Old Sulphur Spring Road. Ehrlich said he has invited Romney around the corner to meet his parents, but it is unclear whether that will happen.
Ehrlich said no fundraisers are planned for the trip.
Romney, who dropped out of the running for the nomination in 2008, days before Maryland voted, is easily the most organized candidate in the state this time. Long before voters went to the polls in Iowa in January, Romney amassed a coterie of well-known GOP officials and volunteers, announced endorsements and lined up delegates for the national convention.
Though he was an early supporter of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Andy Harris said Tuesday that he appreciates having Romney visit.
"Maryland is a state that could be up for grabs," said the lawmaker from Baltimore County, one of two Republicans in Maryland's congressional delegation. "We're not California, but we do have a significant number of delegates at a time that each and every delegate counts."
Santorum, who has gained momentum relatively late in the campaign, was unable to field a full slate of delegates in Maryland — he has faced similar problems in other states — and he does not have any easily recognizable party leaders on his team. Santorum spoke Tuesday night in Gettysburg, Pa., 10 miles from Maryland's border, but his schedule does not include any Maryland events this week.
Phone calls and emails to his campaign were not answered.
Jim Crawford, a Charles County Republican who helped the Santorum campaign line up delegates in Maryland, acknowledged the lack of organization initially but noted that Santorum has sometimes performed well in states where he had been written off.
"There's a lot of underlying conservative feelings in the state of Maryland, both among Republicans and Democrats," Crawford said. "In politics, anything can happen."
The way Maryland allocates its delegates could create an opening for Santorum, Gingrich or Ron Paul to pick up support for the convention even if they fail to win the state's popular vote. Twenty four of 37 delegates are awarded by congressional district, meaning that the candidates could add to their delegate count if they win one or two of the districts.
Ten statewide delegates go to the winner of the popular vote. The three remaining slots are filled by party officials, including state party chair Alex X. Mooney.
"We're excited to get the attention," said Mooney, who was a Romney delegate in 2008 but is remaining neutral this year. "Maryland hasn't always been targeted."
The state's other Republican in Congress, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, said Tuesday that he remains neutral in the presidential primary. Bartlett, a 10-term incumbent, faces a difficult re-election bid after his district was redrawn last year by Democrats in Annapolis.
In an email Tuesday, the Maryland Democratic Party accused Romney of wanting to "go back to the same economic policies that got us into this mess in the first place." Southern Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and party chairwoman Yvette Lewis scheduled a conference call with members of the news media in advance of Romney's visit.
While the state's delegates matter, it is unclear how much of a fight will play out for them in Maryland. Romney has scooped the most money out of the state, but there have been no independent opinion polls to assess whether his superior organization has translated into popular support.
Another key sign that the race might not sizzle: No campaign is running political ads on television.
Several party officials acknowledged that Wisconsin could receive more attention. That state offers 42 delegates and is a more natural fit for Santorum.
"Every delegate at this point is important," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "But could Maryland knock one of them out? Absolutely not."