GOP presidential primaries coming to Maryland

While a recent straw poll done by the Republican Central Committee of Carroll County saw Rick Santorum gather nearly twice as many votes as any other GOP presidential candidate, politically minded people in the county and state think Marylanders will vote otherwise.

Larry Helminiak, chairman of the committee, said while Santorum did well in the poll, he thinks Mitt Romney will end up getting the most votes in the county because he's been the most constant candidate over the last few months.

"Other candidates have been popping up and down, but Romney's ground game has been far longer than any other candidate's," Helminiak said.

In the straw poll, Santorum's 32 votes were followed by 17 for Romney, 13 for Newt Gingrich and 9 for Ron Paul.

While some people have said Romney's identification as a Mormon may alienate him from some voters, Helminiak said he hasn't heard anyone say they won't vote for Romney based on that.

The majority of people seem to be worried about the economy the most, something that should help Romney because of his business experience, Helminiak said.

"People who vote based on moral issues will go with Santorum," Helminiak said. "But people who are looking at the country's needs when it comes to financial direction will go with Romney."

Sen. Joseph Getty, R-District 5, a candidate for delegate to the Republican National Convention designated to Romney, said the economy is the main issue in the election, and Maryland voters like Romney's background with business.

"I think the Republicans in Maryland are focused on economic issues and Mitt Romney has the experience in leadership to have a strong national plan for job creation and economic recovery," Getty said.

Carroll County residents have been struggling to make ends meet while the local economy has been suffering, Getty said. Romney offers the only clear message for an economic turnaround. Carroll voters are hearing that message, Getty said.

Shawn Parry-Giles, director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland, said the assumption among many people she knows is that Romney will have an easy time winning Maryland because voters in the state tend to be more moderate.

The fact that Santorum is from a neighboring state may help him though, she said, even if he's decided campaigning in Maryland isn't worth his time.

"Voter turnout is everything and it tends to be lower during primaries," Parry-Giles said. "Romney can't take anything for granted."

David Karol, a UMD political scientist, said Romney seems so far ahead that it's hard to imagine him not becoming the nominee.

Paul does much better in caucuses, Gingrich is becoming an afterthought at this point, and Maryland's demographics are very much in Romney's favor, Karol said.

"We've seen evidence from a lot of states already that Santorum and Romney are supported by different sectors of the population," Karol said. "Maryland is a wealthy state with a highly educated population and concentrated metro regions and not an especially large number of Evangelical Christians. Romney does much better with well-to-do people in metropolitan areas and badly with Evangelical Christians."

It's Santorum who should have the strongest appeal to Carroll County residents because of his very conservative values that many Maryland Republicans also agree with, according to Carroll County Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who serves as the Western Maryland Political Director for the Rick Santorum campaign.

"He most closely is aligned with the things we're confronting - constitutional rights, balancing economic issues against the environmental overreach, getting government out of the pockets of business," Howard said. "The things he's talking about are the bread and butter things that we're dealing with every day in Carroll County."

Howard was also very impressed with Santorum's recent trip to Gettysburg, Pa. Santorum spoke for 45 minutes without notes, then got off stage and conversed with the crowd like they were neighbors.

"This guy is the real deal," Howard said.

There is a perception being perpetuated by the media, Howard said, that Romney is the only candidate that can beat President Barack Obama. Opening people's eyes to Santorum's ideas is the biggest challenge in Maryland, he said.

"Obama is ready to run against Romney, [but] he's not ready to run against Santorum," Howard said. "It's like calling a play that the defense isn't ready for. Even if it doesn't seem like the most obvious solution, it can be very effective."

Howard expects Santorum to spend two days campaigning in Maryland, though he is unsure of which two days.

With the current state of the economy, Romney is the GOP's best shot at defeating Obama in November, but certainly not their only shot, according to Chris Cavey, a member of the Maryland Steering Committee in support of Mitt Romney and a Hampstead business owner.

"Any of those men left in the campaign are a better choice [than Obama]," Cavey said. "I believe if gas prices continue going up and the economy stays this way, I could even beat Obama."

Helminiak agreed.

"The people who worry that the Santorumites, the Gingrichites, the Paulites won't vote for Romney if he's the GOP candidate are wrong," Helminiak said. "The overlaying factor is that they will vote for Romney because of who he will be running against."