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Primary turnout today is gauge Voter participation may help reveal mood amid Clinton scandal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Marylanders go to the polls today to choose Democratic and Republican nominees for almost every elective office from the courthouse to the State House in a primary election that is expected to be an important barometer of the mood of the voting public.

Despite the large number of races, with as many as 2,442 candidates, only a few are hard-fought. Office-seekers and local analysts fear the lack of attention-grabbing party contests for governor, coupled with fallout from the Clinton scandal, will cause many voters to stay away.

Beginning at 7 o'clock this morning, voters will cast their primary election ballots at 1,484 polling places across Maryland. Polls close at 8 p.m.

During those 13 hours, Democrats and Republicans will pick their nominees for Maryland's highest offices, including governor and their choice of a successor to the late Louis L. Goldstein, the legendary state comptroller.

Also at stake are all eight of Maryland's congressional seats and one in the U.S. Senate, the state legislature's 188 posts, the executive jobs in the largest suburban counties and seats on local councils and commissions and on the Circuit Court bench.

"It's an important election, even if there are no really big races at the top of the tickets," said Linda H. Lamone, the state's elections chief. "I urge everyone to vote."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening was the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination even before his two chief rivals abandoned their challenges. Because Democrat Eileen M. Rehrmann withdrew only last month, her name will still appear on the ballot.

The governor faces two little-known opponents, Dr. Terry McGuire, a Davidsonville physician, and Lawrence K. Freeman, a follower of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr.

On the Republican side, Ellen R. Sauerbrey has maintained a formidable lead in several polls. She is being challenged by Charles I. Ecker, the Howard County executive.

For the first time in almost 40 years, Maryland Democrats will not see Goldstein's name on the ballot. Goldstein, the state's

longest-serving public official, died July 3, just as he began campaigning for an unprecedented 11th term as comptroller.

But another familiar name will be back on the Democratic ballot: William Donald Schaefer.

The former governor is vying with five lesser-known Democrats for the post left vacant by Goldstein's death. Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt is the only one with some following. A half-dozen others, many of them political newcomers, are seeking the GOP nomination.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski also has several little-known challengers in the Democratic primary for the seat she has held for 12 years. Ten Republicans are competing for the chance to oppose her in the general election.

Three-term Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. has no primary opposition, nor does his Republican opponent, Paul H. Rappaport, who was Sauerbrey's running mate in 1994.

Hot local races

Unlike the statewide races, a number of local ones are hotly contested. Anne Arundel County has a tight Democratic primary -- and Howard County an equally close Republican one -- for the nomination for county executive.

In Baltimore, Clarence W. Blount, the Maryland Senate's majority leader, is locked in a bitter battle with Del. Frank D. Boston. And John D. Jefferies, who replaced ousted state Sen. Larry Young, is fighting a determined challenge from Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV.

The legislative races in the city will essentially be over tonight; since Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1 in Baltimore, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to election. Elsewhere, party winners will face off in the Nov. 3 general election.

Maryland's voter registration rolls have increased over the past four years. Democrats now number 1.46 million and Republicans 767,391, up 200,000 and 90,391 respectively, from 1994.

Cyber-election

The political junkies among them will have a chance to participate in the state's first cyber-election. Elections officials plan to post up-to-the-minute results all evening on a World Wide Web page -- and hook up with several counties to provide local election news. (The Web site is www.elections.state.md.us).

Still, Lamone, the state elections administrator, predicts a lethargic turnout that could be as low as barely 35 percent of registered voters.

Four years ago, with much stiffer competition between the gubernatorial hopefuls, only 40 percent of Maryland voters participated. That was up from 1990, when Democratic turnout dropped to 39 percent, and the Republican to 26 percent, because Schaefer was seen as easily coasting to re-election.

Other political observers agree with Lamone that the primary will be as much a gauge of voter interest as a prelude to the November general election.

'A battlefield test'

"It's like a battlefield test," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a Bethesda-based polling firm. "If there's an abysmally low turnout in either the Republican or Democratic primaries, that could portend a problem for the fall election."

Candidates criss-crossed the state yesterday to shake hands, pass out fliers and simply urge people to go to the polls.

Glendening put in a full, 11-hour day campaigning by school bus, stopping at the three jurisdictions he won in 1994 -- Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore. He squeezed visits to a Rockville shopping center, the Inner Harbor and the Annapolis dock.

"We're seeing a good level of enthusiasm wherever we go," he said while greeting passers-by in downtown Annapolis.

Sauerbrey talked with students at Hereford High School about the importance of voting, then spent the afternoon making phone calls and meeting with her supporters. In the evening, she attended a fund-raiser at an Inner Harbor hotel with Rep. J. C. Watts Jr., a Republican from Oklahoma. "The mood here is very upbeat," said Jim Dornan, her campaign spokesman.

Meanwhile, Ecker greeted morning commuters at two Washington metro stops in Montgomery County, then toured a retirement center in Frederick County. He was equally optimistic: "It's great. I'm getting a tremendous reception."

McGuire, who glad-handed at a senior picnic in Prince George's County, said he would take the election results in stride.

"I feel there are a lot more things that are more important than election. One of them is good health," he said.

Turnout concerns

But for all their good spirits, many candidates were worried about the turnout. State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who has a primary opponent, said she fears fewer than one in three voters in the city will come to the polls.

"Every year, we're getting a historically low turnout, and if we keep it up, we will have almost no one," she said. "It's not a laughing matter. I think it's bad for democracy when the vote drops well below half the people."

Voting information

Registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in their party primaries today. Polls across the state open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. For information on your local polling place, call the state election board at 410-974-3711.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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