With the Maryland presidential primary one month from tomorrow, the state finds itself in a familiar situation. Marylanders must watch and wait as Iowa and New Hampshire anoint can didates and demote others, sorting the pack for the mad rush toward primary day here.
It's the same story every four years. The Maryland primary's grand theme is intrigue. You never know who's going to show up, or what it's going to mean.
"We won't know until the day after New Hampshire," says Kevin Igoe, political consultant from College Park and state coordinator for one of the Republican hopefuls, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. "I think it's an open book on how much attention Maryland's going to get."
The state's primary is March 5, well in the wake of the marquee events: the Iowa caucuses Feb. 12 and the New Hampshire primary Feb. 20. And Maryland shares March 5 with the primaries or caucuses of eight other states in different parts of the country.
Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis hopes to change that. At this weekend's meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of States in Washington, he plans to bring up the idea of a Mid-Atlantic regional primary. Mr. Willis serves on the committee concerned with presidential primaries.
Combine Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, he envisions. And throw in Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
"You have something then that will get candidate attention," Mr. Willis says. "I can just imagine them all making campaign swings from Harrisburg to Baltimore to Richmond."
Maryland has tinkered with the timing of its primary since 1988, when the General Assembly bumped it up from May to March. The hope then was that joining a Southern regional primary would shine the national spotlight on Maryland.
"But that really didn't happen," says Mr. Willis, who wrote the book, "Presidential Elections in Maryland." "The candidates spent all their time hopping from Miami to Atlanta to Dallas. They got more bang for their bucks in those media markets."
This year, Maryland likely will get slighted because five of the states with March 5 primaries are in New England. They formed a regional primary of their own, the "Yankee Primary," grasping for their fleeting moment of fame, too.
"All of this can be changed, but it takes years," Mr. Willis says of a Mid-Atlantic primary. "There are a lot of state and local politics that go into this. It's not just presidential politics."
So he says the question for Maryland this year is: "Does anybody on the Republican side peel off and come here to try to make an impact?"
The Republican side is where the battle rages. For the first time in 36 years, the Democratic primary in this primarily Democratic state is not seriously contested. Challenging President Clinton is Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., who was paroled from federal prison in January 1994 after serving five years for mail fraud and conspiring to defraud the Internal Revenue Service.
Maryland Democrats do not expect Mr. Clinton to visit Maryland before the primary because of the budget battle in Washington. But Vice President Gore may appear here later this month. Mr. Clinton lost the Maryland primary in 1992 to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, but then defeated former President George Bush in the general election.
Of the Republican contenders now crisscrossing Iowa and New Hampshire, the two most likely to make a splash here -- at least in person -- are U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. Their state campaigns by far are the most active.
By contrast, the multimillionaire publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes Jr., the hottest Republican since Ronald Reagan, is campaigning the new-fashioned way. He is touting his flat-tax plan in ads on a Salisbury television station, getting the added benefit of exposure in Delaware. Its primary is Feb. 24, four days after New Hampshire.
Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, says she has not heard a peep from the Forbes campaign.
"We've called his national headquarters and asked that literature be sent to us," Ms. Terhes says. "I don't believe we've received anything yet."
Last summer, before few Marylanders even had heard of Steve Forbes, Ellen R. Sauerbrey began working tirelessly for Mr. Gramm. The GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1994, Mrs. Sauerbrey came within 5,993 votes out of the 1.4 million cast of becoming Maryland's first Republican governor since 1966.
She gassed up her grass-roots organization for Mr. Gramm, corralled more than half of the state's delegates and senators, opened Gramm for President headquarters in Timonium, and now is forming statewide phone banks with the goal of reaching 100,000 registered Republican voters.
Mr. Gramm, who owns a vacation home on the Eastern Shore, has made more than a dozen campaign stops in Maryland, Mrs. Sauerbrey says. And, she adds, he plans on making a couple more after the New Hampshire primary.
The trouble is, Mr. Gramm's message -- long on plans for balancing the federal budget, but short on charisma -- apparently is falling flat in other states. He faces his opening test Tuesday in Louisiana, a test of limited significance because six of the nine GOP candidates are boycotting Louisiana's first-in-the-nation caucuses in deference to Iowa.
Tony Caligiuri, executive director of Mr. Dole's state campaign, says his charge from the Dole national headquarters was "to cut off the Gramm campaign at the knees at the Maryland primary." Mr. Caligiuri is on leave from his job as administrative assistant to 1st District Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Mr. Dole's state chairman.
"But our impression is that the Gramm campaign won't be a viable campaign when the Maryland primary hits," Mr. Caligiuri says.
Mr. Dole has his own problems, despite his active state organization based in an office in Severna Park. The longtime front-runner, Mr. Dole and his theme of proven leadership are running smack into criticisms of too much proven leadership. He is 72.
Nevertheless, Mr. Caligiuri says he expects Mr. Dole to win the early primaries, perhaps narrowly, and remain on top as the Maryland primary approaches. Then, Mr. Caligiuri says, Mr. Dole probably will spend a couple of days campaigning in the state.
How often Maryland's own Alan L. Keyes, who lives in Darnestown in Montgomery County, campaigns in the state is another question. A rousing speaker on the moral corruption of society, Mr. Keyes twice ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and worked as a radio talk-show host. Although Mr. Keyes does not score high in polls, his passionate delivery has roused audiences from Florida to Alaska.
Asked why Mr. Keyes wasn't campaigning more in his home state, the candidate's national political director, George Uribe, from campaign headquarters in Oregon, said: "His campaign is for president of the United States, not just president of one state."
The state campaigns for Mr. Alexander, former Tennessee governor and President Bush's education secretary; Patrick J. Buchanan, television commentator from Virginia; and Sen. Richard G. Lugar from Indiana, are quiet, waiting to see how the candidates fare in early primaries.
Also on the Maryland ballot are Maurice "Morry" Taylor Jr., a Midwestern tire magnate, and U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California. Calls to the Dornan national campaign office went unanswered until, finally, the recorded message said: "This mailbox is full. Please try again later."