Barack Obama narrowly edged out fellow U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards in an unscientific, but interesting, presidential straw poll of some of Howard County's most dedicated Democrats.
The poll was done at the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner Thursday night at Clarksville's Ten Oaks Ballroom, with Clinton supporter (and straw voter) Gov. Martin O'Malley the main speaker.
The results surprised some of the more than 300 people attending.
Obama got 65 votes to Clinton's 61, and former Senator Edwards got 56 votes. Next highest was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson with 12 votes, former Vice President Al Gore with 6, Sen. Joseph R. Biden with 4, and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich got 1.
"It was surprising in that I had not really heard of an effort on behalf of Obama, but I had heard of an effort by Hillary," said party Chairman Michael C.A. McPherson, who announced the results.
Carol Fisher, a longtime party stalwart working on Clinton's behalf, said the results mean nothing because she has done no real work yet, other than spread a few bumper stickers around.
"With Martin O'Malley and [U.S. Sen.] Barbara Mikulski in her camp, that's pretty good support," Fisher said.
O'Malley said nothing as the result was announced, said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who was sitting next to him.
"I was surprised. I'm liking both of them very much," Bobo said. "People say we want to pick who is going to win, but how do you figure that out?"
C. Vernon Gray, an Obama supporter who said he did not vote in the poll, said the Illinois senator is exciting because he has fresh ideas.
"People get tired of the same old traditional answers to problems," said Gray, who added that it is just a straw vote.
County Executive Ken Ulman, who like Bobo has not decided whom to support for president in Maryland's February Democratic primary, saw nothing but good news in the poll. More people would have supported Gore, he theorized, if the former vice president were an active candidate.
With Democrats divided but feeling good about their choices, the party could benefit, Ulman said.
"It will generate a lot of excitement, and that's good for party building," he said.
Ulman told the eager crowd that the last election results show that "Howard County is now 100 percent absolutely a Democratic County," because of his victory, and with Democrats taking four of the five County Council seats and eight of 11 county General Assembly seats. Ulman urged the party faithful to redouble their efforts to build on that success.
O'Malley was working on a little excitement of his own, telling the crowd that he wants to expand his narrow 2006 victory in Howard.
"God bless those folks from western Howard County," he said, referring to a newly vigorous Western Howard County Democratic Club, whose members are trying to make inroads in the Republican-dominated area.
"We have to bring [in] some Republicans who have grown weary and want to move forward again," O'Malley said.
"Howard County has developed that reputation for being a bellwether county. I don't think you can win the state without winning Howard County," the governor added.
He then launched a recitation of his first-year accomplishments.
"I tried to restore that tone in Annapolis of mutual respect," O'Malley said.
In addition, O'Malley said his first budget increased state spending much less than Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's last one did. O'Malley said he cut the number of vehicles in the executive's office fleet and has proposed $200 million in budget cuts to begin dealing with the looming $1.4 billion structural deficit that he said Ehrlich did not cause but passed along to him.
He described Ehrlich's term as "a disastrous four years."
Several county Republicans offered an alternative view after hearing about the governor's remarks.
State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a former County Council member, said O'Malley used a huge budget surplus Ehrlich left to mask his spending increase and failed to address the deficit in his first budget.
"I don't think he should be proud of the fact that he didn't do anything in his first session," Kittleman said.
He also wondered why O'Malley is now proposing $200 million in cuts.
"Why wasn't that part of the budget? It's kind of hard to criticize the former administration when you just spent your first year not doing anything," Kittleman said.
Republican Del. Warren E. Miller had another perspective -- one that O'Malley might not object to.
"If moving the state toward being a model for progressive liberals is what you want, then I think he made a good start this year," Miller said, mentioning a new state law allowing convicted felons to vote.
Today, Ulman takes off for a seemingly unlikely destination, the International Conference of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas.
Howard's executive is one of several elected officials from Maryland going on the three-day trip, including O'Malley and the executives of Baltimore and Harford counties.
The reason is an important one, Ulman said.
"I really want to make sure I understand the trends" in the industry, he said. Ulman is worried about revitalization of older shopping centers, like Columbia's village centers. He noted the empty supermarket building at Wilde Lake and the demolition and rebuilding of a new anchor grocery store at Kings Contrivance.
The county's Economic Development Authority is paying for the trip, and chief executive officer Richard W. Story and Ulman chief of staff Aaron Greenfield also are scheduled to attend.