"We've been talking about it all day ... the possibility of having an African-American or a woman in the White House," said Arthur Moore, 52, a schools administrator. "I'm excited, because it's a new day for us."
In offices, coffee joints, barber shops and college dormitories across the state, discussion has raged in the past week about one of the most compelling elections in decades.
Maryland, along with Virginia and Washington, is experiencing a rare dose of presidential election relevance. With Democrats Obama and Clinton deadlocked after Super Tuesday, votes cast here this week will be closely watched and painstakingly dissected. Among Republicans, Sen. John McCain looks all but certain to be the nominee, but still needs to mend fences with the more conservative members of his party, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is still campaigning.
Energy is certain to rise before the primaries. Television advertisements are jamming airwaves, and phone calls are going out to voters. Obama has scheduled rallies in College Park and Baltimore tomorrow and is expected to draw tens of thousands of supporters. Clinton, too, will be making local appearances, including in Bowie tonight and Towson tomorrow. Former President Bill Clinton will barnstorm through Maryland today.
Moore, the educator, had been wavering between Clinton and Obama until former Bill Clinton made comments interpreted by many as racially insensitive while campaigning in South Carolina. Those remarks pushed Moore into the Obama camp. "He seems to be for all people," Moore said.
The enthusiasm for voting this year is not universal, however. The engrossing contests and ubiquitous pledges of change have not wiped away the cynicism that many harbor about politics. The competitiveness of the Republican race plunged after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped out last week.
State elections administrator Linda H. Lamone predicted that roughly 35 percent of registered Maryland voters will come out to the polls, a healthy figure but not the record-breaking turnout some other states have experienced.
During the 1992 presidential primaries, 45 percent of Democrats turned out to decide among Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown and others; 39 percent of Republicans chose between George Bush and Patrick J. Buchanan. Turnout has generally been lower since then, although 43 percent of Republicans voted in the 2000 presidential primary.
Elections officials in Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties predicted average turnout figures.
"Most people are dissatisfied with all their choices," said Dennis Holston, cutting hair last week at Towne Barbers in downtown Bel Air. "It's the lesser of two evils. That's what I hear."
Janet Ruth said she finds "a lot of interest" in the presidential race among her customers at Buy the Cup, a Bel Air coffee shop next door to Towne Barbers.
"I ask people, just because I like to find out what's on people's minds," said Ruth, 55. What she's heard of late, she said, is almost universal distaste for Hillary Clinton.
"Tell me what she's bringing to the table," said Ruth, who, unlike many women voters, said she has no intention of supporting Clinton based on gender or a need to break a glass ceiling. "It's the issues that are the issues, not the sex or the color of the person," Ruth said.
But Clinton nonetheless enjoys widespread support in Maryland.
Tracie Hovermale, 49, of Davidsonville brought her 16-year-old daughter, Kristin, to the "Women for Hillary" rally in Annapolis last week. Though she did some local campaigning for Kerry in 2004, she said she is enthusiastic and feels a sense of urgency this time around.
"It's exciting because we need to move out from where we've been the last eight years," Hovermale said.
With the economy faltering and some neighbors struggling to hang onto their homes, she's eager for new leadership. Hovermale is also concerned about the war in Iraq and about America's standing in the world. Her daughter's going overseas next semester, "and I hope she'll be welcome."
The campaigns have been working to build enthusiasm.
Huckabee appeared on the University of Maryland College Park campus yesterday, firing up younger voters such as Andrew Tress, a 20-year-old junior from Harford County.
Tress waved an "I Like Mike" sign when the former governor told a crowd of students in the college's student union building that he's going to stay in the race, despite the odds.
"I like his social issues. I'm Catholic, he's a Baptist, and I believe in strong family values," said Tress. "I also like his economic plan. I like the fact that he's going to have just a sales tax instead of an income tax. ... He won't be taxing your income, so if you don't buy a lot, you can conserve whatever money you want to save."
Clinton has the support of several labor unions whose members have been working phone banks. Obama has launched an aggressive canvassing effort and brought supporters such as Alfre Woodard, an Emmy-winning actress, into Maryland. Woodard visited beauty salons and barber shops across Baltimore yesterday, urging patrons to pull their friends to the polls for Obama.
"I always vote, but I found myself educating myself more," said LaTanya Stokes, 34, a Baltimore language arts teacher and Obama supporter who said she found Woodard's pep talk at Diva's salon on North Howard Street inspiring. "I think he's for change. He seems concerned. He seems passionate."
Proprietor Myasha Kirk said the election has been "a huge topic of conversation" at Diva's for weeks. "It's the most involved clients have been," she said.
John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who wrote a book on presidential elections in Maryland, said that voter participation could reach new heights depending on how much effort the Obama and Clinton campaigns expend in the next few days.
"This is the first time since 1992 that the major party candidates have run TV ads. That's significant," Willis said. "You are doing it because you are trying to motivate voters."
Seventy Democratic delegates are available in Maryland, and will be divided partly based on vote totals in congressional districts. Turnout in individual districts or neighborhoods could mean an extra delegate or two that could be important as the race drags on. "Mobilization efforts ... will be critical for both campaigns," Willis said.
Some are mobilizing on their own. After hours of political conversations this week, Moore, the city schools administrator, still had one more discussion he wanted to have. He called his brother, a trucker, to make sure he would be in the area on Tuesday.
"He promised me he would come out and vote," Moore said.
Sun reporters Laura Barnhardt, Larry Carson, Phillip McGowan, Mary Gale Hare, Tom Pelton and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.