Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Clinton used her first campaign visit in Maryland to argue Sunday for more federal investment in cities, a general election message in a blue state that is beginning to receive an atypical level of attention from presidential candidates from both parties.
Speaking in Baltimore just more than two weeks before the state's primary, the former secretary of state was joined by several local elected officials. She picked up the endorsement of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the last Democratic member of the state's congressional delegation to back her.
"I particularly want to pay attention to our cities, like Baltimore," Clinton told about 1,500 supporters gathered in a converted garage near South Baltimore. "I will focus particularly on communities, neighborhoods, regions that have been passed by."
The visit came at the start of what looks to be an energetic presidential election in Maryland and the four other states voting on April 26. Campaign aides for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are also beginning to organize here, and most of the Republican candidates are starting to prepare for what could be an important day in the fight for delegates.
Clinton, who leads Sanders in delegates and votes, delved repeatedly into Maryland politics with a level of specificity unusual for a presidential candidate speaking at a rally. During a passage on federal transportation funding, she took aim at Republican Gov. Larry Hogan by arguing that "the Red Line here in Baltimore should have been completed."
Hogan canceled the light rail project last year. He called it a "wasteful boondoggle."
Clinton praised Democrats in the General Assembly for advancing a paid sick leave bill (the measure was approved by the House of Delegates, but faced a high hurdle in the Senate in the final days of the legislative session). And she reiterated a vow to spend $20 billion to help young people connect with jobs in places such as Baltimore.
A Hillary Clinton administration, she said, would direct "hundreds of billions of dollars in new investments to places like West and East Baltimore."
Maryland's late primary, which ordinarily reduces the state to an afterthought in the presidential nomination process, has a chance this year to change the narrative in the Democratic race when it delivers its 118 delegates.
With its diverse electorate and closed primary, Maryland is the type of state in which Clinton has performed well. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released Thursday showed her with a 15-point lead over Sanders.
A win for Clinton here would not only serve as vindication for her 2008 loss here to Barack Obama; it could also help reverse the Sanders' momentum after a string of recent victories.
But a win for Sanders could force a rethinking of the conventional wisdom about his appeal, which has been stronger among young, white voters.
The rally, the first visit by a presidential candidate to Maryland since Sanders toured Sandtown-Winchester in December, drew supporters to City Garage in the Spring Garden Industrial Area near South Baltimore. Clinton was repeatedly interrupted by protesters who carried signs questioning her husband's criminal justice policies.
"Feel the Bern!" one woman chanted as she was escorted out of the building.
Clinton focused her criticism mainly on Republican front runner Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
She called Republican proposals on immigration — such as Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States — un-American. The Republican economic platform, she said, is the same "snake oil" that led to the nation's economic meltdown seven years ago.
She mentioned Sanders briefly, criticizing his votes on gun control measures that have dogged him throughout the race, specifically legislation to grant immunity to gun manufacturers when their weapons kill. Clinton said the self-described democratic socialist's free college tuition proposal is impractical because it relies on buy-in from states with GOP governors.
"When somebody tells you something is free," Clinton said, "ask for the fine print."
Ben Jealous, the former NAACP chairman now leading Sanders' Maryland steering committee, said recent polling showed Sanders "surging" in Maryland.
"Marylanders trust Bernie Sanders to fight and deliver for their families," he said in a statement. "Some may be surprised that this race is becoming competitive. We aren't. Our campaign in Maryland is growing."
Cummings, the only Democratic member of the state's congressional delegation who had not endorsed Clinton, threw his support behind her at the rally.
Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, acted as a defense attorney during Clinton's marathon hearing last October.
"To Bernie Sanders," Cummings said, "I say 'thank you'" for calling attention to progressive issues.
"But Bernie," he continued, "I know Hillary Clinton. We know Hillary Clinton."
New York's primary on April 19 could shape the votes April 26 in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
But because Democrats allocate delegates proportionally, anything short of a big win in New York by Sanders will make it difficult for him to catch up.
"A squeaking-by victory isn't really a victory for him," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "If she beats him and beats him substantially in New York, then it will take a lot of air out his sails in Maryland."