MOST Marylanders can be forgiven if they forgot they're supposed to go to the polls in just two days. You're not supposed to have elections in early March, for goodness stake. Primaries are held in September, after all.
Not any longer. At least, not in presidential years. In the rush to make Maryland's presidential primary important, state leaders keep moving the date to earlier in the calendar. First it was May, then late March, now early March. If this trend continues, we might some year (say, 2008) celebrate New Year's and the presidential primary on the same day.
The ho-hum nature of this election, plus the winter timing, assures a low turnout. Especially on the Democratic side. Everyone knows that William J. Clinton has a lock on renomination. There's no Senate race on the ballot. And except in one district, the congressional primaries are cut and dried.
In a heavily Democratic state, this means dullsville. Only in parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County are there fireworks. Nearly three dozen candidates are running for Congress in a lopsidedly Democratic 7th District that ensures the primary winner will be going to Washington.
It is a fascinating race. Not since Parren J. Mitchell retired 10 years ago has there been an election in the 7th worth discussing. Since then, the district -- still heavily black -- has shifted from entirely urban to urban-suburban: It follows Liberty Road from its inception at Mondawmin all the way to the Carroll County border.
There are no guideposts for figuring out the results. Ministers from four pulpits now see themselves as elected solons, anxious to establish the New Jerusalem on Capitol Hill. One of them happens to be the mayor's stepbrother.
Another candidate has been regarded for decades as the town's resident socialist. Another is well known for promoting his law practice through the airwaves.
Then there are elected officials who have developed a bad case of bloated ego. Only in their wildest dreams could they be deemed qualified to serve in Congress.
Yet with so many candidates and the district's tendencies unknown, it is a guessing game. The clear leader seems to be Del. Elijah E. Cummings. He has the most legislative expertise, the broadest political network and he has used these contacts to take a huge lead in fund-raising. That should translate into an outpouring of TV and radio ads and solid organizational support from political clubs to get out the vote.
Silly in March
Still, there's no telling what could happen if it snows that day, or rain keeps many 7th District voters at home. These March elections are silly.
Only the Republicans are having fun. They, after all, are witnessing a rock 'em, sock 'em presidential bloodbath. For a few days, at least, Bob and Pat and Lamar and Steve will be seeking Maryland convention votes. But only Bob Dole has deep roots in the state GOP infrastructure; Ellen Sauerbrey's apparatus had embraced Phil Gramm. Now that he's out of the race, Sauerbrey followers seem to be sitting out the primary.
That leaves the field mainly to Mr. Dole. While Pat Buchanan's appeal to the darker human instincts excites some here, especially those with narrow agendas, most experienced party leaders view him as too vitriolic for most Maryland Republicans.
There is speculation that Mrs. Sauerbrey would love to endorse Mr. Buchanan, since she shares many of his deeply held conservative views. But she's no fool. She realizes her run for governor in 1998 would be compromised, that her foes would quickly brand her a supporter of a classic demagogue who doesn't mind engaging in subtle race-baiting, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and demonizing.
Once Republicans make a choice for president, there's not much else to excite them. In Howard County, there is a down-and-dirty judicial race for voters from both parties to decide. But that's about it.
So don't expect to spend much time casting your ballot. The list of offices is slim. You'll be in and out of the polling place in a few minutes. It is, though, the month's most exciting event this side of St. Patrick's Day.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.