Sen. Barack Obama built a fragile advantage among Maryland Democrats heading into the nation's first primaries of 2008, with the state's large black population solidifying around the candidacy of a promising African-American leader, a new Sun poll shows.
But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's win in New Hampshire has likely tightened the Democratic contest, The Sun's pollster said.
Among Republicans in Maryland, Sen. John McCain of Arizona holds a narrow edge over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney close behind, according to the poll.
But support is weak for all candidates, particularly in the Republican field. With less than a month before Marylanders cast their primary ballots, many voters say they might still change their minds.
"It's an extremely malleable electorate," said Steve Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks, the polling firm that conducted the survey for The Sun. He said voters are finding it a challenge to "lock in on anyone."
Nearly seven in 10 Republicans who currently support McCain or Huckabee say they might switch allegiances before Maryland's Feb. 12 primaries. Support for Giuliani and Romney is only slightly firmer, according to the poll.
Democratic voters are more sure of their choices. Even so, four in 10 Clinton and Obama backers said they could be swayed by another candidate.
With so much uncertainty, the results of next month's so-called Super Tuesday primaries - where California, New York, Illinois and more than a dozen other states select convention delegates - could have a major effect on the Maryland outcome.
"If there's a big tidal wave on Feb. 5, and Obama gets snowed under by Hillary, his support will largely evaporate here in Maryland, except in certain important pockets," Raabe said. "I do believe that for any candidate in this race, whatever happens on Feb. 5 is going to determine what happens in Maryland on Feb. 12."
The Maryland results parallel national trends, with no clear favorites in an unsettled election, which for the first time in decades lacks an incumbent seeking re-election or a vice president hoping to advance.
If the races remain undecided into February, which some analysts foresee, Maryland's primaries could be more significant than previously thought.
Virginia and the District of Columbia vote on the same day as Maryland.
The telephone survey of 904 likely registered voters was conducted Jan. 6-9, including two days before the New Hampshire primary and one day after the results were known. The impact of that contest - with Clinton and McCain reviving their candidacies - might not be fully reflected in the results.
Obama held a 39 percent to 26 percent lead over Clinton among Democrats, when voters who said they were leaning toward supporting a candidate were included. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards trailed with 12 percent support. The margin of error in the Democratic race was 4.6 percentage points.
Sixty percent of black voters supported Obama, up from 30 percent in an August OpinionWorks poll. Clinton had the backing of 22 percent of black voters.
Maryland is home to the largest proportion of African-American residents outside the Deep South, and black voters historically count for three in 10 voters in a Democratic primary. Increasingly, black voters appear enthusiastic about a possible Obama nomination.
"I like his ideas. I think we need something different," said Veronique Davis, 23, a Columbia resident studying social science at Howard Community College. "I like Hillary Clinton, but we've already had a Clinton. It would be better to have something fresh and new."
Davis said she was surprised by the Illinois senator's Iowa win and was excited about voting this year. But she remained skeptical that Obama would emerge victorious.
"I think he does have a good chance of winning, but I'm not sure people are ready to have a black president," she said. "There's still a lot of racism. That could be a problem."
Byron Tribue, 22, a recent graduate of Florida State University who moved to Pikesville with his girlfriend, said he made up his mind to vote for Obama after listening to his Iowa victory speech.
"Everything he is saying is new," Tribue said. "America is looking for something different."
Twenty-one percent of black voters said they would be more likely to vote for Obama for president in the November general election because of his race. Three out of four said race makes no difference. Among white voters, only 7 percent said they would be more likely to vote for Obama because he is black, while 84 percent said race made no difference.
Pollsters had a difficult time foreseeing Clinton's New Hampshire win. Analysts have suggested she was helped by last-minute support from women who may have reacted sympathetically to some of Clinton's emotional or humanizing moments in the past week.
If female Democrats in Maryland have begun moving to Clinton in similar fashion, "this race is undoubtedly much closer" than the numbers indicate, Raabe said. The Sun's poll numbers did not reflect such a shift, however.
"There's part of me that says, 'Do you want to be a woman who doesn't vote for the first woman who has a really good chance to be president?'" said Carolyn Kline, 32, a former fifth-grade teacher from Crofton who now stays at home to raise her two young children. Kline said she likes Clinton's health care and education policies, and appreciates "what I feel she helped to accomplish while her husband was in office."
Fourteen percent of Democratic women said they were more likely to vote for Clinton because of her gender, more than double the percentage of men.
But if McCain is the Republican nominee, Kline, who is a Democrat, said she might vote for him in November. She said she believes that McCain projects a "position of authority" on homeland security and the global fight against terrorism.
The Republican contest in Maryland appears to be a four-way race, with little space between the leading candidates. McCain had the support of 26 percent of primary voters when those leaning toward a candidate were counted, followed by Huckabee with 18 percent, Giuliani with 16 percent and Romney with 12 percent. Fred Thompson garnered 6 percent, just above Texas Rep. Ron Paul's 5 percent.
The margin of error in the Republican sample was 5.6 percentage points.
In the August survey, Huckabee - the surprise Iowa winner - had just 2 percent support.
"I fluctuated among McCain, Giuliani and Romney," said William Lewis, 86, a retired telephone company installer from Catonsville. Lewis said he is now "centered" on McCain, because of the senator's "reliability, character and general view points - similar to mine."
Lewis disagrees with McCain's immigration views, an issue that has weakened the Arizona senator nationally. Lewis said he would be "less than enthusiastic" if Huckabee were the nominee, but would vote for Giuliani "without regret."
Faith Stanton, 73, a retired domestic worker from Mount Airy, is among the 16 percent of Republican voters who say they haven't made up their minds. "All of them do a lot of talking," she said. "It's hard to say right now."
The Sun survey offered little hope for the candidacy of John Edwards, the former vice presidential nominee who has vowed to stay in the Democratic race.
"He doesn't have any sort of a pathway to victory right now," Raabe said. Unless Edwards catches fire nationally, "here in Maryland, there is no obvious constituency," Raabe said.
Edwards saw no gain when voters were asked for their second choice. Among Democrats, Clinton was the second choice of nearly a third of primary voters, and Obama was the second pick of one in four.
On the Republican side, Giuliani, McCain, Romney and Huckabee had roughly similar support as a second-choice selection.
Coming tomorrow: Marylanders' views on the death penalty.