A look at the game within the game

The Baltimore Sun

This Tuesday, it's all about Barack and Hillary, John and Mike. But there's a distinctly local angle to the presidential primary election, a positioning exercise with implications for leadership struggles down the road in Maryland.

The locals, Martin and Doug and Peter and Barb (and Bobby, too) are interested bystanders. They're part of a political side bet, wagering a bit of their political credibility on their choice of a presidential candidate.

Inside the political bubble, the smart money takes note of these choices. Who's backing whom, and why? It goes beyond the issues, folks. It has to do with the future. Everyone wants to be with the winner, but more is at stake than bragging rights.

For example, all things being equal (they never are, of course), Comptroller Peter Franchot and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler might go with the Democratic Party establishment and experience. Sen. Hillary Clinton, in other words. But Maryland, with its important black constituency, figures to be a good bet for Sen. Barack Obama, so they're with him. So is Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. Surely they find him able and electable, but there's more to the calculation. They're going to be running again in Maryland primaries - maybe against each other - so they may wish to support a black candidate who may be on his way to the White House.

This consideration has not eluded Gov. Martin O'Malley. A backer of Mrs. Clinton, he got into the endorsement game early, before the Obama surge. Surely he thinks she would be a fine president, but was he too eager to fall in behind the then-prohibitive front-runner?

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is with Mrs. Clinton, but her colleague from Maryland, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin - a good poker player - hasn't shown his cards. He has endorsed no one. He and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer are watching while the value of their support rises. If the Obama-Clinton battle were to be decided at the party nominating convention, they would be big players in the backroom negotiations.

Mr. Cardin's decision is interesting because last year, Mr. Obama came to Maryland to back him in his race against a strong black Republican, Michael S. Steele. Mr. Cardin chose not to reciprocate. But if the nominee comes from a brokered convention, the Obama IOU may be called in.

On the Republican side of things, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani - who has departed from the race, handing his support to Sen. John McCain. Mitt Romney suspended his campaign Thursday, further simplifying the equation for the GOP.

The presidential race is front and center, but what about Wayne and Andy and E. J. in the 1st Congressional District? Who'll survive that mud bath? And, in the 4th, there's Rep. Albert R. Wynn and challenger Donna Edwards, who almost surprised him two years ago. Has Mr. Wynn regained his footing, or will the expected mega-turnout make him one of the rarest of political birds: an incumbent congressman who lost?

Usually there would be little to report about the congressional primaries. Not so this year. Handicapping these races, by district:

1st: A carnival of Republican fratricide. Mr. Ehrlich lost his presidential candidate, but that doesn't mean he's got nothing at stake this year. He's been actively supporting state Sen. Andy Harris against Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who's been in office since 1991. State Sen. E. J. Pipkin is the other main contender on the Republican side.

2nd: Relative peace. Call it already for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

3rd: Say no more. Rep. John Sarbanes (son of former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes), though serving his first term in the House, may already be a congressman for life.

4th: The perfect anti-incumbent storm. Incumbents don't like "change" elections. They don't like large turnouts. The 4th may have both.

5th: Southern Maryland's friend in a high place: Mr. Hoyer, House majority leader. Another done deal.

6th: Still serving after all these years? Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett. Didn't he say something about term limits? Whatever.

7th: Nimble. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' district requires attention to the concerns of urban and suburban voters. Apparently making both happy.

8th: Rising Democratic Party star. Rep. Chris Van Hollen is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means. If 2008 is as big a Democratic year as many are predicting, Mr. Van Hollen's star will rise even faster.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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