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Maryland primaries could matter after all

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- The Democratic powers in Annapolis didn't look so smart after they moved Maryland's presidential primary to the earliest date ever.

The idea was to make the state a national player again, but as it turned out, more than half the country still is voting ahead of Maryland this year. Once more, strategists said, Maryland would be an afterthought.

Well, think again.

Every day it seems more likely that voters in Maryland will have a say, after all, about who gets nominated.

The Republican contest is still formless. As many as five candidates arguably have a shot at winning, and nobody knows how many will be alive a few weeks from now.

Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are locked in a tight, two- person race.

So which party's primary will matter on Feb. 12 in Maryland? Conceivably, both will.

For Democrats, two factors-dollars and party rules- could meant that Feb. 5, when 22 states hold primaries and caucuses, won't be decisive.

Presidential candidates never give up, "they run out of money," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who is non-aligned this year. Clinton and Obama have deep funding bases. As long as they're competitive, they'll have the resources to keep going.

If Obama sweeps Nevada and South Carolina, the next two tests, he could regain the impetus he lost in New Hampshire. But Clinton has some important advantages.

John Edwards is helping her, even though he's slipping farther behind, by siphoning off anti-Clinton votes that would otherwise go to Obama.

Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, an adviser to Bill Richardson, who dropped out of contention last week, estimates that every 5 percent of the vote that Edwards gets will take one point away from Obama in his matchup against Clinton. In New Hampshire, Edwards received 17 percent of the vote.

Ultimately, nominations are about winning a majority of the delegates to the national convention. Democratic rules are deliberately designed to prevent a front-runner from pulling away quickly, even in a two-way fight. A second-place candidate can do much better in the delegate count than in total votes, and anyone who gets at least 15 percent of the vote in a state or congressional district wins delegates.

Edwards says he's staying in until the convention. If he keeps winning delegates, he could turn them over to either Obama or Clinton at the right time.

Another Clinton edge: Hundreds of party and elected officials are automatic convention delegates. Most haven't announced a preference, but those who have favor Clinton.

Among them is Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who pushed the Maryland legislature to advance the primary to mid-February from early March.

O'Malley has been campaigning outside the state for Clinton, but it isn't clear that he'll be able to deliver his own. Changing Maryland's primary date could just as easily wind up hurting her, instead.

Maryland's rules are more favorable to Clinton than those of some other states. The primary is closed, which means only registered party members can vote. It's too late to change parties, but new voters can still register (See box).

Nationally, Clinton is doing better among Democrats than Obama, who has relied more on independent voters. So keeping independents out of the Maryland primary should help Clinton.

However, Maryland's large population of African-Americans and affluent white liberals could tilt the state to Obama. The hot congressional primary in a mostly black district in Prince George's and Montgomery counties figures to boost African-American turnout even higher.

If Clinton is ahead after the Feb. 5 voting, Obama "could easily come back the next week and start turning it around again" in Maryland, said Maslin.

That would be in line with the state's role, back when it counted in primary battles. Maryland opened the second phase of the national campaign by helping the underdog, after a front-runner had been established. In 1976, California's Jerry Brown began a late run of victories over Jimmy Carter by winning the Maryland primary - on May 18.

Maryland Republicans, meanwhile, will have to wait a while to see which candidates survive Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.

Mike Huckabee's victory in Iowa and his strength among social and religious conservatives give him a good chance of being one of the last men standing when the race narrows to two contenders.

The former Arkansas governor is trying to broaden his appeal to blue-collar voters, economic conservatives and independents with a very un-Republican message of economic populism. But he's facing potential money problems; perhaps for the first time ever, success in the early voting didn't generate a flood of fresh donations.

Republican strategists unconnected to any of the campaigns aren't sure that Huckabee can go all the way to the nomination. But who else might isn't clear, either.

For John McCain, winning Michigan two days from now would demonstrate that his New Hampshire victory wasn't just a nostalgia trip. If he loses, he could start looking like a one-state wonder.

Mitt Romney faces elimination if he doesn't win Michigan, where he was born, grew up as the governor's son and launched his presidential campaign. Coming in ahead of both McCain and Huckabee won't be easy, but he's outspent his rivals on TV ads there.

That ol' Tennessee hound, Fred Thompson, roused up the other night at a televised debate in South Carolina, whose first-in-the-South primary is an important test for the former senator from next door.

Thompson speaks the language of South Carolina, and he's making a last stand there. If he's the big surprise in the Jan. 19 primary, it would fan the dimming embers of his presidential try.

Rudy Giuliani, resources dwindling, is making one last stab at winning in Florida, which casts the first big-state vote. He's gotten lots of publicity about his supposed strategy of starting his run in the Jan. 29 primary.

In reality, Giuliani began elsewhere, spending millions of dollars and months of campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and in Iowa, only to go backward.

But if McCain and Romney struggle, and Huckabee is on a roll, Giuliani could become the choice of Florida's social moderates and economic conservatives. That might make him a contender in the closest thing yet to a national primary, on Feb. 5.

Huckabee's campaign manager, Ed Rollins, says the race is far too muddled to end that day. "Republicans could be in a long fight," he said, that won't end until March 4, when Texas and Ohio have their say.

Others think it will be over, for all practical purposes, the week before Maryland votes. On Feb. 5, "someone will win a big majority of the delegates," said Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign and is a McCain supporter but not active in the campaign. "This is a business of attrition."

If he's right, the Democratic contest, which narrowed down faster, could last longer and be the one that makes Maryland matter again.

Paul.west@baltsun.com

DOES MARYLAND MATTER?

What's at stake: Maryland presidential primary, also congressional primaries and selected state and local contests.

When: Tuesday, February 12, 2008, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Who can vote: Registered Democrats and Republicans only.

New voters: Must register by Jan. 22, including any 17-year-olds who will be 18 by Nov. 4, 2008. It's too late to change party registration unless you have moved to another county or Baltimore City. Re-register by Jan. 22.

More information: State Board of Elections. Toll free: 800-222-8683. On the Internet: http:--www.elections.state.md.us

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