ANNAPOLIS -- When the General Assembly gave Maryland a March 3 presidential primary this year, it may have saved the state's voters from once again casting their ballots in obscurity -- or after the races were all but decided.
"Maryland has become an important steppingstone instead of an afterthought," Democratic National Committeeman Lanny Davis says.
In 1988, Maryland was obscured in the crush of states that held their primaries on "Super Tuesday." In earlier years, the state's primary came so late that the winners had virtually locked up their nominations.
This year, when Maryland goes to the polls, no more than 3 percent of convention delegates pledged to specific candidates will have been picked -- in states such as New Hampshire and Iowa.
Another 10 percent will be chosen March 3. About 20 percent more of the pledged delegates will be picked March 10, this year's Super Tuesday. By a week later, 50 percent of the delegates will have been chosen.
Already, there are signs of a more vigorous campaign here, with more appearances by the contenders, more organizing and more advertising. The candidates have scheduled real campaign stops -- speeches, meetings with party officials and voter forums.
They go far beyond the airport press conferences scheduled for candidates as they wait to change planes -- the sort of campaigning that characterized earlier primaries in the state. At least one major contender reportedly has reserved money for TV advertising -- a sign of real commitment.
Strategic considerations also conspire to make Maryland's primary more visible. The winner of the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18 will try to consolidate his position as the man to beat. The also-rans will be looking desperately for some proof of electability. They'll try to convince contributors they can win.
If conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan wounds President Bush with his challenge in New Hampshire, the president will be anxious to campaign in a state where voters have not been so thoroughly pummeled by the economy.
Maryland's Republicans also tend to be less conservative than New Hampsire's -- and perhaps more friendly to the president.
Even with the candidates concentrating on the New Hampshire primary, the Maryland campaign was on in earnest last week. The president, the vice president's wife and three Democratic contenders all made appearances here.
Former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas spoke to about 200 students from the pulpit at the University of Maryland Law School's Westminster Hall in Baltimore.
His appearance had a broader significance for one member of his audience. Robin Simonds, a 34-year-old computer scientist at the law school, had despaired of finding a real campaign earlier this year.
"We're beginning to see people taking risks with their political careers, to suggest that there may be some solutions. Tough times are forcing candidates to grapple with our problems," he said.
Whether or not Mr. Tsongas will get his vote, Mr. Simonds was grateful for the presence of someone who could dispel his "feeling that government only serves those who are in a position to influence it in a way most of us can't." Mr. Tsongas, he said, "was laying out a road we could travel on to get us where we want to be as a nation."
He was eager to see the alternate maps presented by President Bush and the other Democrats. He didn't have to wait long.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was in Annapolis Tuesday and former California Gov. Jerry Brown was in Baltimore briefly Friday. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, with one of the most vigorous early bids for the votes of Marylanders, will speak tomorrow at Heritage United Church of Christ on Liberty Road.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey was in Maryland last November for a Veterans Day address. His campaign manager is a well-respected political organizer, Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley.
Mr. Simonds said he looks forward to closer examination of how Mr. Kerrey, Mr. Tsongas and the other candidates propose to deal with "the fiscal realities" -- balancing the need for housing and better public education against the deficit.
Although he has yet to name a day-to-day campaign manager for Maryland, President Bush helicoptered to Catonsville last week to announce a $600 million infusion of cash for the preschool program called Head Start.
The president was meeting his promise to make the program available to all who are eligible -- and countering the charge that he has no domestic policy. He also announced a $40 million waste-treatment grant for Baltimore and another $5 million for the Chesapeake Bay.
While coordinators may not be so important when the candidate can dispense those kinds of goodies, some Bush partisans are eager to get started. "People are beginning to call and ask what they can do to help and we have no one to direct them to. The rank-and-file volunteer doesn't understand," a party official lamented last week.
The campaign did announce that Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md., will be the chairman of the Bush campaign here.
Mr. Buchanan has not campaigned in Maryland, but he is scheduled to be in Bethesda Feb. 6 for a cocktail fund raiser. He starts well behind in the race for support among Maryland Republicans.
His attack, based on Mr. Bush's decision to abandon his 1988 campaign pledge of no new taxes, as well as other conservative positions, will have some resonance.
"A good gauge now is that the president is answering Pat's zTC issues," said Seth Stein, Mr. Buchanan's campaign manager.
"Pat has been the proactive candidate and the president has been the reactive candidate. No challenger in recent history has been able to set the tone and agenda against a sitting incumbent."
Nevertheless, Mr. Buchanan is not likely to win any delegates here because party rules apportion delegates on a winner-take-all basis in each of the eight congressional districts.
The Democratic candidates will win delegates in proportion to their vote totals in each district.
Forty-four seats will be at stake on primary day. Another 40 at-large delegates will be chosen later, in proportion to the primary results, from the ranks of party leaders.
Mr. Clinton has wrapped up endorsements from many of the party's elected officials.
A few, however, worry that the Arkansas governor will be hurt by the recurrent discussion of extramarital affairs.
"Is he a womanizer?" a member of the Anne Arundel County central committee asked outside the Annapolis hotel where he spoke last week. She wondered: Would the party be embarrassed again?
Mr. Clinton addressed the issue repeatedly, conceding that his marriage, now solid, had been rocky for a while.
"I think this thing could help him," says Michael H. Davis, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign in Maryland. "The American people are sick of stuff like this. This tabloid paid a woman to conjure up this story. Here we are in a recession and the press is spending time on this. I think the Republicans are behind it. This is a guy who can give them a race. He's a very thoughtful guy."
Absent the cloud, Mr. Clinton seemed well-positioned for the Maryland race. He won endorsements from state legislators with widely different ideologies and, unofficially, from 17 of the 24 Democratic county chairs. They include Gerard Evans of Prince George's County, a close associate of Nathan Landow, the state party chairman and prominent party money raiser.
"Clinton can connect with a spectrum of people we haven't seen together in this party in years," said Del. Richard N. Dixon, D-Carroll.
Mr. Davis said his contributor list includes Robert Hillman, Governor Schaefer's chief fund raiser; and Ronald E. Shapiro, the Baltimore lawyer, talk-show host and adviser to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
WHEN: Tuesday, March 3.
* Democrats: Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tsongas.
George Bush, Patrick J. Buchanan.
* Democrats: On primary day, 44 seats at the convention. Another 36 at-large delegates to be chosen later, in proportion to primary results.
* Republicans: 24 seats on primary day, and 18 at-large delegates to be appointed later.