Early primary presses Marylanders With Cuomo, Duke out, voters will pick from smaller field.


Attention voters: There are only eight weeks left to shop for a presidential candidate.

Surprised? While you were immersed in the holidays, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were building campaign organizations for the Maryland primary March 3, one of the earliest in the nation.

At least two candidates have opened state headquarters in Baltimore and more plan to do so. Bumper stickers, buttons and the candidates themselves will soon be seen. Several presidential pretenders have already made little-publicized forays into Maryland in search of money and supporters.

Maryland's primary is sandwiched into the schedule between the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18 and the "Super Tuesday" crowd of contests March 10. Depending on how they do in New Hampshire, candidates may see Maryland as a chance to build momentum or restore credibility.

The field is smaller than it was just a couple of weeks ago -- and may be even smaller after New Hampshire.

David Duke of Louisiana withdrew from the Maryland Republican race and Mario Cuomo, the pensive New York Democrat, announced he wasn't a candidate anywhere. In the Republican race, that leaves just President Bush and long-shot candidate Patrick J. Buchanan.

The Democratic race in Maryland is another matter. Absent Cuomo, who many party veterans believe would have been the favorite, it's wide open.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder all have a shot at winning the primary, though probably with less than 50 percent of the vote, the experts say.

Some handicappers rate Tsongas' chances below those of the others; former California Gov. Jerry Brown is not given much of a shot at winning.

A poll done in mid-December by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. found 20 percent of state Democrats favored Wilder. Clinton was next at 12 percent, followed by Kerrey, 10 percent, Brown, 6 percent, Harkin, 5 percent, and Tsongas, 3 percent.

However, the poll winner was none of the above. Forty-four percent of Democrats were undecided, a sign that voters had yet to focus on the race.

"I think Maryland is up for grabs at this point," says John T. Willis, author of a book on presidential elections in Maryland.

He says the race will be shaped by the outcome in New Hampshire, the national publicity candidates receive in the next two months and the degree to which the candidates campaign in Maryland and get themselves known to voters.

The candidates are competing for support now behind the scenes, trying to recruit party activists and elected officials to run for delegate March 3. Jan. 9 is the deadline for delegate-candidates to file for the primary.

To win the most delegates, each presidential candidate must have supporters running in his name in all eight congressional districts. Forty-four delegates will be chosen primary day. Voters cast ballots for a presidential candidate and for delegates.

Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, starts with an apparent advantage because of the preponderance of black voters in the Baltimore-based 7th Congressional District and the 4th, which takes in Prince George's County and part of Montgomery County, says J. Bradford Coker, Mason-Dixon's president.

Coker says Wilder also has a name recognition head start because the Washington-area television market takes in the Maryland suburbs as well as Virginia. But other candidates have constituencies, too.

"I think Harkin is going to pick up some of the labor vote that probably was leaning to Cuomo," Coker says. "I think Kerrey will make in-roads with the baby boomers, suburbanites, and I think Clinton will pick up some of the more moderate-to-conservative Democratic voters. So I think those four candidates are the leaders in the state.

"Tsongas, I just don't see doing anything. He's not very charismatic. He doesn't come off well on television. . . . And Brown is seen as a flake."

Thomas Cowley, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, believes as Coker does that it's too early to make predictions.

"At the moment, I don't think anyone has any clear advantage here in Maryland," Cowley says. "I think the public is fairly unaware that a Maryland primary is happening March 3."

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