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Primary race catches fire finally in Md.


An unspectacular presidential primary race in Maryland is taking on the look of a battle only now, as the John Kerry and John Edwards campaigns burn up phone lines, leaflet churches and street corners, and organize last-minute rallies in hopes of propelling voters to the polls Tuesday.

Kerry is scheduled to make his first campaign stop in Maryland tomorrow, with a speech at Morgan State University. Elizabeth Edwards swept through the state yesterday, meeting with her husband's supporters at three house parties and an Annapolis restaurant. And Kerry's national campaign chairwoman, former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, will have brunch today with an influential group of Montgomery County Democrats.

At stake in Maryland are 69 of the 1,151 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, when voters here and in nine other states, including New York and California, go to the polls in contests that could seal the Democratic nomination.

Polls show front-runner Kerry with hefty leads over Edwards in many of those states. But Edwards could make a strong stand in Maryland, experts said, and they cautioned that Maryland's demographics and maverick streak have made for surprises in past primaries.

"Edwards is the off-brand candidate, and the instinct of Marylanders to go against the tide may be intensified in this primary because we've gotten buried by so many other primaries occurring on the same day," says Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. "I don't think Edwards is going to carry the state, but I think he's going to take some delegates away from here."

Maryland voters have sided with the party's eventual nominee in just eight of the 14 Democratic presidential primaries in the state since 1912.

In 1972, voters chose Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace - who had been shot and seriously wounded in Laurel a few days before the primary - over Hubert H. Humphrey and George McGovern. In 1976, Jerry Brown beat Jimmy Carter. And in 1992, Paul E. Tsongas upset Bill Clinton, who angered many supporters by scrapping a series of Maryland campaign stops to focus on the South.

Crenson believes that Edwards will fare better here than in every Super Tuesday state except Georgia. A strong finish could buttress the North Carolina senator's prospects for the vice presidency, analysts said.

The Edwards campaign has made its biggest push in vote-rich Prince George's County, a Democratic bulwark where Rep. Albert R. Wynn has campaigned vigorously on his behalf for months. Edwards made his only Maryland campaign stop at Prince George's Community College, a raucous rally Feb. 20 that drew about 600 people.

Edwards might also benefit from what some political observers say is a rightward drift in the electorate in recent years. In 2002, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 elected its first Republican governor since 1966.

But Edwards' support among the state's Democratic elite remains thin. Last week, a procession of prominent political leaders closed ranks behind Kerry. The Massachusetts senator's supporters include Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"I like Edwards a lot - I think he can definitely relate to people coming up in difficult circumstances," Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said in an interview. But in choosing to endorse Kerry on Friday, he said, "I wouldn't be truthful with you if I didn't say electability was a major factor."

Polls released last week offered somewhat conflicting views of the race here. In an American Research Group survey of 600 likely primary voters, 42 percent said they would vote for Kerry and 35 percent for Edwards. But a Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey over the same period showed 62 percent for Kerry and 20 percent for Edwards. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The one consistency was that up to 15 percent of the surveyed voters said they were still on the fence, a sign that weekend campaigning and a televised debate in New York today could play inordinate roles in shaping voter perceptions.

Wynn, a six-term Democrat who represents the country's wealthiest black-majority suburb, has made it clear that he sees Edwards as most in step with African-Americans, who make up nearly a third of the state's population and a majority of Baltimore's.

Edwards, a millworker's son and the first in his family to go to college, is "someone who came up tough, like most of us," Wynn said in introducing Edwards at the Feb. 20 rally.

Wynn said in an interview Thursday that Edwards' appeal transcended Prince George's County. "Western and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore areas, where you have more moderate and centrist Democrats, are areas where we have a pretty good shot and which are not necessarily African-American hotbeds," he said.

Morgan State University, the historically black college in Baltimore where Kerry is speaking tomorrow, might offer a symbolic counterpoint to Edwards' speech before a largely black audience at Prince George's Community College.

Ron Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist, says he is mystified that Edwards did not spend more time and money in Maryland, a state with affordable media markets, a reputation as a North-South border state, and independent-minded voters.

"Dean was doing very well in Maryland," Walters said of the former Vermont governor's soaring poll numbers and high-level endorsements early this year. "The switch to Kerry could have been intercepted if Edwards spent more time in the state."

In a January poll for The Sun, Marylanders rated schools and the state's fiscal woes as Maryland's most important problems. The economy and jobs - the central theme of both the Kerry and Edwards campaigns - ranked a distant third.

With few marked distinctions between candidates' platforms, analysts say state Democrats will look most closely at experience, character and an ability to unseat President Bush. But how the vote will break Tuesday is anyone's guess.

"What I will look for is, is this more like a Jerry Brown model or a Mondale-Hart model," says John T. Willis, a former secretary of state who has written a book on Maryland's presidential elections. "Jerry Brown came from behind to win. Hart was unable to penetrate what was a very solid Mondale constituency supported by the very same people who are supporting John Kerry."

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