The Maryland Democratic Party wants time on its side, and it's willing to change the rules for next year's elections to get it.
State party leaders are pushing to move the 2006 primary forward from September to June, altering four decades of tradition, so that their nominees for governor and U.S. Senate have extra weeks to prepare for Republican opponents.
The proposal has the backing of the state's top elected Democrats, including two U.S. senators, six members of Congress, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, according to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"A majority of states have early primaries," Miller said in support of the change. Maryland has one of the nation's latest nonpresidential-year primaries, allowing just seven weeks between the nominations and first-Tuesday-in-November general election.
Democratic leaders began discussing the shift earlier this year and tried to get it passed during the General Assembly session. The Senate approved the concept, but the House of Delegates killed the bill that contained the proposal.
Miller has told some allies that he intends to make the idea his top priority when the legislature reconvenes in January, and wants it to pass quickly. That way, if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoes the measure, lawmakers could override the veto while they are still in session.
Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party who has participated in discussions about the shift, said voters of all persuasions would benefit: "It needs to be done because next year is an incredibly important election, and voters need as much time as possible to understand and evaluate their choices."
Republicans aren't buying the lofty rhetoric. They say Democrats worry that their party's picks for Senate and governor will be mortally wounded by tough primaries, paving the way for the re-election of Ehrlich and possibly of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to the U.S. Senate.
"The Democrats are saying to the people of Maryland, 'We don't care how you want to vote, we just want to fix it so that we win,'" said Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party. "Their theory is since we don't like the rules anymore, we are going to change them in light of having a Republican as governor."
Speculation about the change seems to have accelerated the timetable for the 2006 election. Two major Democratic candidates, Kweisi Mfume and U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, have already entered the race for Senate.
In the last gubernatorial election, Ehrlich and former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat, waited until the spring of 2002 to make formal announcements; this season's crop of candidates will probably announce in the fall.
But the date change is no sure thing. It would apply not only to races for governor and Senate, but to the 47 state Senate and 141 House of Delegate seats up in 2006 - and it must be approved by state lawmakers who have a compelling reason not to adopt it when they reconvene in January.
State officials, including the governor and General Assembly members, are prevented from raising campaign money during the 90-day session that ends in April. A spring primary could give opponents in their own party an advantage.
"Just leave it the way it is," said Del. Steven J. DeBoy Sr., a first-term Baltimore County Democrat in a competitive district.
Talk of a date change comes as the most compelling election season in recent Maryland history gets under way.
Democrats are still smarting from Ehrlich's 2002 victory. They are vowing to field a candidate superior to Townsend and arm him with enough money and volunteers to win.
But neither of the two leading potential candidates, O'Malley and Duncan, shows signs of moving aside for the other.
Many Democratic politicians like and respect both, but worry about a take-no-prisoners primary that would inflict wounds and deplete the cash of whoever emerges victorious.
As the standard-bearer of the GOP, Ehrlich is expected to face no serious primary challenge. He would be able to save his resources while he waits for a weakened opponent to stumble into the ring.
The race for an open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes presents the same scenario.
Cardin, the 10-term Baltimore County congressman running for Senate, said he won't disclose his preference for when the primary is held and will not get involved in lobbying for a change.
"Considering that it directly affects my election, I have not taken an active role. I am purposely not going to intercede. Whatever the rules are, I am ready to comply with them."
Mfume acknowledged that an earlier primary would be "manna from heaven" for him and other Democrats in the race. But it comes with a downside.
"This becomes a knife that cuts both ways," he said. "You have more time to heal breaches in the party, but you also give more time to the opposite party to attack, to define, and attack again."
And there is no guarantee that intra-party wounds can be closed. Mfume recalls helping in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1980; he said Jimmy Carter's and Kennedy's supporters could not reconcile their differences after the nominating convention.
"There really [are] no guarantees that any of this will produce what people expect, one way or another," Mfume said.
Republicans are expected to fight the proposal, arguing that Democrats are being crassly calculating. "They wouldn't do it if the shoe was on the other foot," said Del. George C. Edwards, the House minority leader from Garrett County. "There's no burning reason out there to change it."
It should come as no shock that there is politics in what is inherently a political decision.
Former Gov. Marvin Mandel said he recalls when the primary date was changed from the spring to September. He was speaker of the House at the time, in the 1960s. The rationale then was the same as it is now, he said: harming Republicans.
"If you had the primary in September, the Republicans couldn't get organized," Mandel said, adding that the move also helped Democrats because it changed the pace of campaigns.
"So much money is spent in that period from June to November," he said. "You run two campaigns, not one."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said in an interview last week that he sees the value in changing the date, but wants public debate and input over the summer so the decision is not made just "by politicians sitting around."
"I do believe you need a greater period of time between the primary and the general" election, Busch said. "But when you set these things, you do it with a long-term view."
Busch said he welcomes Ehrlich's suggestion - made when the governor vetoed several election-related bills last month - of a study commission on election issues, including a primary date change.
Busch warned that the date should not be too early, because county officials wait until after the General Assembly session to pass their budgets, when they know what state funds are available. It would be unfair, he said, for county executives and council members to propose budget cuts or other unpopular changes just weeks before an election, when their opponents could demagogue on the issue.
He suggests July as an alternative and said concerns about voters being away for vacation could be eased if the state allowed selected polls to be open for a week before Election Day, as several states have authorized.
Miller, the GOP spokeswoman, said that if Democrats are insistent on such an alteration, they should just move ahead.
"They're scared," she said. "At the end of the day if they want to change the primary, do it. Bring it on. It hurts their incumbents."