LARGO - After months on the sidelines of presidential campaigns that always had better places to be, Maryland enjoyed a fleeting moment in the spotlight yesterday as Sen. John Edwards brought his down-home drawl and thousand-watt grin to a college campus here.
It was the first Maryland campaign stop by a major Democratic candidate since a Howard Dean rally in Baltimore in November, and it electrified local Democrats resigned to nosebleed seats in a race that has mostly unfolded elsewhere.
The North Carolina senator strode onto a stage at Prince George's Community College yesterday afternoon to his thumping rock 'n' roll campaign anthem, "Small Town." Flanked by local officials and clergy, Edwards delivered his familiar populist message about lifting up poor families, healing racial divisions and stemming the loss of factory jobs to free-trade agreements.
"This president is completely out of touch," Edwards said of President Bush, the subject of frequent scorn during the 20-minute speech. "When he talks about the economy doing fine, he's talking about the CEOs of Wall Street. He ain't talking about Main Street."
The hundreds of supporters packed into the student center roared in approval.
Edwards, who lags far behind Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in the delegate count despite a strong second-place finish in Wisconsin on Tuesday, made clear yesterday that he intends to pick up at least some of Maryland's 69 delegates. Aides said he plans to return - to Baltimore, on Feb. 29 - before the state's March 2 primary.
But whether his visits signal an elevation of Maryland from Super Tuesday sidelight to battleground remains to be seen.
Ten states vote on March 2. Edwards aides have said they will focus on New York, Ohio and Georgia, places with fading factory towns receptive to his message about the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs.
Kerry hasn't ruled out a visit to Maryland, but had no stops planned as of yesterday.
Even so, the narrowing of the contest to a two-man race has lent the campaigns here purpose and excitement.
Edwards opened a Maryland headquarters this week in Capitol Heights and sent seven full-time workers there from the national campaign. Kerry opened a headquarters in Annapolis with 11 full-time employees and plans a second office in Baltimore.
"Marylanders don't care about the campaign in California," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "The very fact that Edwards is coming here, and the Kerry folks are thinking about coming, makes you feel that Maryland does play a part in each one of their strategies."
Democratic primary voters in Maryland have tended to favor liberals and mavericks over moderates, a preference that analysts say is fueled in part by the substantial presence of federal government workers and African-Americans.
In the most recent Maryland poll, a Feb. 3 to 8 survey of likely primary voters by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, Kerry led Edwards by a more than 5 to 1 margin.
'A smart move'
But political analysts say that the early and energetic support Edwards has received from U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, an influential figure in Prince George's County politics, makes the state a wise investment.
"This is a smart move for him because next to Georgia, this is the state with a March 2 primary where he probably has the best chance to make a splash," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University.
"He'll probably pick up a lot of the more conservative and moderate Democrats on the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland," he said. In addition, Crenson said, "the African American population in Prince George's is more conservative than that of Baltimore and more likely to be registered to vote."
A focus of the Kerry and Edwards campaigns here is an outreach to supporters of Dean, who withdrew from the race after a third-place finish in Wisconsin.
But that effort may bump up against ironclad loyalties to the former Vermont governor, Dean operatives say. Walter Ludwig, Dean's state coordinator, said he has been telling supporters to stand by their candidate, not least to give some of the disaffected voters he brought into the political process a chance to go to the Democratic National Convention in Boston this summer.
"He's still a candidate in their hearts," he said. But if the race between Kerry and Edwards tightens, that could change. "If it looks like it's going to be close, a lot of people still uncomfortable with John Kerry are going to look closely at John Edwards," he said.
Kerry and Edwards are still struggling to clinch big-name endorsements in Maryland. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings came out early for Dean.
On Thursday, the Kerry campaign released an endorsement list with nearly 80 Maryland names, mostly state lawmakers or local officials without the influence to sway large numbers of voters.
Wynn yesterday discounted the significance of endorsements, a signal that many prominent political figures may be preparing to line up behind the front-running Kerry.
"Endorsements do not win primaries," Wynn said in an interview after the Edwards rally. "I think Al Gore's announcement established that reality," he said of the former vice president's endorsement of Dean.
The racially diverse crowd at yesterday's rally cut across demographic lines. There were senior citizens in wheelchairs, college students with pierced eyebrows, mothers toting babies, and loyalists from Washington and Virginia who had already cast ballots back home.
Joel Dearring, 43, of Bowie, an assistant basketball coach at the community college, wore an Edwards sticker to the rally but said he was still on the fence. He wished Edwards had said more about pumping money into schools. Even still, he came away with a warm feeling about the man.
"He sounds like he's about the people," Dearring said.