Obama motivates young voters, African-Americans for O'Malley

BOWIE — — It was a Democratic pep rally for Gov. Martin O'Malley, with President Barack Obama as cheerleader in chief.

Calling Martin O'Malley "one of the best governors in the United States of America," President Barack Obama spoke Thursday to about 5,000 students and supporters on the grounds of Bowie State University, a historically black college in Prince George's County.

"Here is a man who made tough choices in tough times to move Maryland forward," Obama said, echoing a favorite line of the governor's. He praised O'Malley's Chesapeake Bay policies, education funding and crime-fighting strategy.

O'Malley is in a tight race against his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Maryland Republicans said Thursday that Obama's policies "have failed."

"We are far worse off than we were when both Governor O'Malley and President Obama took office," said Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott.

Though the Bowie event marked Obama's 59th appearance in Maryland as president — making it his most frequent stop outside of Washington — it was his first appearance on behalf of an individual candidate since stumping in January for Martha Coakely, the Massachusetts attorney general, who then lost her bid for a Senate seat.

At a time when Obama's popularity lags solidly below 50 percent nationally, it remains higher in Maryland. Many at the rally expected O'Malley, who was an early endorser of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election, to benefit from Obama's support on Election Day.

"If the president comes out to help on your behalf, that can only be a positive thing," said Robert Horton Sr. of East Baltimore, who traveled to Bowie with a small group to hear the president's speech.

The 30-minute speech at Bowie State, similar in tone and content to others Obama has given across the country in recent weeks, was designed to pump up Democratic voters, who polls show are as dispirited as Republican voters are energized.

"We want to ensure that what's been referred to appropriately as the 'enthusiasm gap' is closed," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday, describing Obama's recent appearances at rallies as the midterm elections draw near.

Gibbs said the president has a "real affinity" for motivating young people to come to the polls. A recent speech at a Wisconsin college and Thursday's event were reminiscent of his successful campaign trail strategy two years ago.

Obama's appearance in Maryland, which has the highest per capita population of black residents outside of the Deep South, also aimed to activate the state's bloc of African-American voters, who supported O'Malley by a 4-to-1 margin over Ehrlich four years ago.

Many Democrats who attended the rally said the president's visit provided a much-needed energy boost.

Karen West said she came to the rally for "motivation." The 46-year-old Owings Mills resident is in charge of a program to find jobs for unemployed people. She ticked off the numbers: Only about one-third of the 637 people who have come to her for help have found employment.

With such basic needs, she said, it's no wonder Democrats aren't engaged in politics. She said she hoped Obama's speech "gets people out to vote."

Baltimore resident Mike Canady and girlfriend Tisa Silver of nearby Mitchellville, both 31, said the presidential pep rally will help Maryland's Democratic candidates. "If you can get support from the White House, that's great," Silver said. "Democrats need a swift kick in the butt like this to get out and vote."

Before Obama took the stage, a series of Maryland Democrats gave pep talks, openly disparaging the Tea Party movement, lauding health care reforms and lavishing praise on the president — topics that might be considered too controversial in other states.

"We're not going to stand for the Tea Party people here in Maryland," Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said, shouting out to the crowd.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin later said: "We don't need any witchcraft," a dig at Christine O'Donnell, the Tea-Party-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware who said in a interview years ago that she dabbled in the practice.

Most of Maryland's congressional delegation — Rep. Roscoe Bartlett is the sole Republican — attended, wearing gold or red ties, the colors of Maryland's state flag. Absent were Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Baltimore County and Rep. Frank Kratovil of the Eastern Shore.

Ruppersberger's spokeswoman said he had committed to a local newspaper interview that could not be changed, and Kratovil's spokeswoman said he was busy door-knocking in Anne Arundel County at the time.

Brenda Pridgen, a 59-year-old Baltimore resident, said she is not particularly enthusiastic about O'Malley but came to the Obama rally to "restore my understanding that the whole country has not gone crazy."

She said she plans to vote for O'Malley reluctantly. "When you have two devils to choose from, you might as well pick the one who is more progressive," Pridgen said.

Obama, in his speech, questioned whether Republicans have a plan for improving the economy, deriding their recently unveiled "Pledge to America" as "the same old snake oil." He said just as he and Democrats tried to steer the country out of a recession, Republicans tapped them on the shoulder and asked "for the keys back."

"You can't have the keys back, because you don't know how to drive," Obama said as many in the crowd laughed. "We'll give you a ride if you want, but you've got to sit in the back seat."

At one point, a heckler shouted, "You're a liar," and was shoved toward the back of the crowd, though he continued to listen to the speech.

Republican National Committee spokesman Parish M. Braden said Obama's remarks amounted to "another hollow stump speech" and stressed that Maryland employers have continued to shed jobs.

The crowd was thick with people in O'Malley-green and Mikulski-red T-shirts. Gates opened around 10 a.m., and the president didn't speak until more than five hours later. Those attending were not allowed to bring food or beverages beyond security checkpoints, contributing to health emergencies for some.

A Prince George's County spokesman said 38 people required some type of medical treatment; the president called for help for two who apparently fainted during his speech. Two people were taken to a local hospital. The two ambulances on scene became "overwhelmed" around 1:45 p.m., said Mark Brady, the Prince George's County Fire and EMS spokesman. Five additional ambulances were added. Brady said most suffered from exhaustion and dehydration.

Before Obama took the stage, O'Malley repeatedly referred to himself as the president's partner. "I'm proud of our president," the governor said, a line that elicited robust cheers. The crowd responded most strongly to Obama's speech and when elected official directly referenced him.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler, who spoke at the rally, supplied another reason that Obama wants Democratic voters to come out for O'Malley.

"Virginia forgot to step up, and they got a Republican governor," he said. "If we don't step up, President Obama will be surrounded by Republican governors."