THE campaign of President George Bush appears to have written off Maryland despite the gentle embrace of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the heavy breathing of Mr. Bush's state campaign manager, Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd.
By contrast, the campaign of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has tightened its candidate's grip on the heavily Democratic state and its 10 electoral votes, with at least one late poll showing Mr. Clinton leading the incumbent by nearly 2-to-1, with independent H. Ross Perot running a distant third.
The sharpest signal that the Bush campaign has decided to cut its losses in Maryland is the absence of the usual currency of campaigns. Unlike 1988, when Mr. Bush carried Maryland by 50,000 votes over Michael Dukakis, there's no walk-around money being dispensed, very few bumper stickers, no pins and only an occasional sign.
In fact, many of the Democratic apparatchiks who were quietly involved in the Bush campaign in 1988 are staying at arms' length this year because he is expected to make such a poor showing in Maryland. The rules of the marketplace being the rules of politics, however, if campaign money were proffered, they'd probably take it anyway.
Adding to the Republican president's misery in Maryland is the fact that Democrats have reversed a 12-year trend. Democrats not only have registered 197,000 new Maryland voters since March, but many apostate Democrats are returning to the party after supporting Ronald Reagan and George Bush since 1980.
Early in this campaign season, Mr. Bush appeared to be confident about winning Maryland a second time this year. He won his party primary easily when David Duke was erased from the ballot and Pat Buchanan, after an early scare, plunged like a crazy comet.
Despite Mr. Bush's aversion to pork -- the federal equivalent of walk-around money -- and his demand for a line-item veto, the president has been a generous benefactor to Maryland and a frequent visitor. And Mr. Schaefer has been his constant companion, guest at the White House and weekend traveler to Camp David in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.
Just after he denounced pork-barrel projects in his State of the Union address, Mr. Bush rushed over to endow Maryland with $45 million toward the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
On another occasion, Mr. Bush was joined by Mr. Schaefer at a West Baltimore school to announce a bonus for the Head Start program. Mr. Schaefer teamed up with the president for a photo opportunity at Dunbar High School. And on another celebrated occasion, the governor accompanied the president and Russian President Boris Yeltsin on a luncheon boat ride on the bay.
Mr. Bush, at Mr. Schaefer's request, facilitated the change in welfare regulations that will allow Maryland to require stricter compliance from recipients at the risk of reductions in payments.
And just recently, Mr. Bush won praise from Mr. Schaefer for finally twisting the federal government to back down on the controversial Medicaid provider tax, a gesture that gave Maryland a $75 million windfall in a year when the state budget is seriously out of whack.
Maryland had been under a full-scale assault from the Bush campaign. Barbara Bush read here. Marilyn Quayle lectured here. Dan Quayle spoke here. And cabinet secretaries lobbied here.
So by now, it's fair to assume, Mr. Bush should have had Maryland in the bag, at least by Mr. Schaefer's lights and by the way the president tried to wrap up the state early in the game.
Fat chance! Just what, then, is the reason for the newly developed love/hate relationship between Mr. Bush and Maryland. The explanation is that Maryland is America in miniature.
Simply look across the country and multiply the woes by two, because Maryland's joined at the hip to the nation's capital. Which is enough to heighten any bad situation. Maryland is first to be aware of Washington's pitfalls and pratfalls.
The state has been through eight rounds of budget cuts, and there are probably more on call-waiting. Housing starts are down. Sales taxes are off. In a government employment-dependent economy such as Maryland's, employment at all levels of government is down. Economic growth in Maryland is trailing other states. Taxes are high; so is unemployment. Manufacturing has gone bust, the service industry is stalled. And you know car sales are down when there's talk of General Motors filing for Chapter 11.
So for the first time since 1980, Maryland will return to the Democratic column, where God intended it to be.
Frank A. DeFilippo writes fortnightly on Maryland politics.