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Maryland is too predictable to get top-of-ticket attention

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's not an island, but it seems one this fall: virtually surrounded by fierce presidential campaigning and all but ignored by the candidates.

In the final hours before the election, Barack Obama, John McCain and their running mates are flooding neighboring states with in-person appearances and campaign commercials. TV and radio signals from next-door are hitting much of Maryland. And everyone could see Obama's infomercial or national cable ads.

But thinking you're in the middle of a presidential contest isn't the same as being there. Here's why: Campaigns aren't just about who gets elected. They're about whose interests get served, too.

Take, for instance, a topic of importance to many Marylanders: the environment.

Some of the nation's top coal-producing states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, happen to be prime electoral vote targets. It's no coincidence, then, that the candidates are talking a lot more about clean coal than about cleaning up the Chesapeake.

Unlike its Mid-Atlantic neighbors, Maryland isn't a prime target because it's not considered competitive on Election Day.

Regardless of who becomes president, you can bet your house that Obama will carry Maryland. That's not to say McCain couldn't have won, but at least 40 other states are easier targets for the Republican.

For weeks, activists from Maryland had to cross into neighboring states to knock on doors for McCain or Obama if they wanted to get involved where it really mattered. Maryland's top political talent has also been exported.

Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Congressman Elijah E. Cummings are among those traveling the country to promote their party's ticket. Former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who pioneered the Republican battle cry, "Drill, baby, drill," has been out there, too. The other day, he joined a group of prominent McCain supporters and the candidate at a Cleveland campaign event.

Like Ohio, a perennial battleground, Maryland used to be a national bellwether.

In 10 of the last 14 presidential contests, going back to 1952, Maryland voted for the winning candidate. In half those cases, Republicans carried the state. But times have changed.

It has been 20 years since Maryland went for the Republican presidential nominee, and the state now ranks among the most Democratic in the nation. Between 1992 and 2004, it has been the third-, fourth- or fifth-most Democratic in presidential elections. Since '04, Democratic registration has risen statewide, while the Republicans essentially flat-lined, according to Maryland elections board figures.

Paul S. Herrnson, who directs the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park, says the state's progressive politics are the product of a well-educated population that is highly dependent on the federal government.

Another leading factor behind the Democratic trend: a growing African-American population.

Maryland has the largest black voter base of any state outside the Deep South, and as Steele said not long ago, "The reality of it is, you take 10 African-Americans [and] nine and a half of them are going to vote for Barack."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, a member of the Republican leadership in Annapolis, says restoring two-party competition in presidential elections "is a tall order." He hopes the tens of thousands of families expected to move into Maryland under the federal base realignment program, many of them members of the military, will boost Republican rolls.

Shank says he's all for finding new ways to approach voters in future presidential elections. But he contends that efforts to reinvent the party, such as moving it leftward to broaden its appeal, would backfire, since that would alienate the conservative base.

"We are who we are, and we are this Reagan coalition, win or lose," says Shank. "Elections come and go, but our party philosophy should continue."

Maryland may not flip from Democratic blue to competitive purple until Republicans attract more minority votes.

But first, says former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV of Baltimore, the party must erase its association with anti-black policies.

Mitchell, a Democrat who helped elect the state's last Republican governor, says Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won six years ago "because he didn't run as a Republican." Someone like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he says, a Republican with blue-collar roots, might be able to broaden the party's national image.

Herrnson says that "a really good Republican candidate, or a really bad Democratic candidate," could make the state competitive in a future presidential contest. But it would take a long-term, "massive population turnover" to change Maryland's political leanings and put it back in play again on the electoral map.

That means it could many years before presidential candidates talk less about ethanol and coal, and more about crabs and the Cheseapeake.

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