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Vice president holds 15-point lead in state, recent survey shows

By Thomas W. Waldron
Sun Staff - Baltimore Sun

Twelve years ago, George Bush narrowly carried Maryland on his way to defeating Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the presidential race.

That was the last time a Republican won a statewide race in Maryland - and political experts give the former president's son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, little chance of repeating that success in November.

While national polls show the race between Bush and Al Gore to be close, the most recent survey in heavily Democratic Maryland found the vice president holding a solid 15-point lead here.

Unless something changes - and things can change quickly in politics - Bush, and perhaps even Gore, will likely concentrate their campaigns in places besides Maryland, a relatively small state with only 10 electoral votes.

"I would be really dumbfounded if Bush decided to spend a great deal of time or a great deal of money in Maryland," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based political consultant and pollster.

By all accounts, Maryland is a must-win state for Gore, and the state's Democratic leaders are preparing an intensive fall effort to make sure he prevails here. Party officials will link Gore's campaign with those of the other Democrats on the ballot - U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and the party's eight congressional candidates, four incumbents among them.

Aside from that "coordinated campaign" effort, the Gore camp will have a state director and spokesman to get his message out.

The national Gore campaign will say little about its plans for Maryland, although a Democratic spokeswoman sounded confident about the state.

"It's a cornerstone of our victory equation," said Jenny Backus, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. "But we're not going to take anything for granted in an election year."

Local organizers for Gore say they expect the vice president, who made a campaign stop last month in College Park, to visit Maryland again before the Nov. 7 election - if for no other reason than it's convenient.

But even without visits by Gore, Democrats here are planning a variety of events such as rallies and phone-banking to generate enthusiasm and guarantee a big turnout at the polls.

"You target your base, you target the people who traditionally vote Democratic" - seniors, working families and students, among others, said Susan Turnbull, a Montgomery County party activist who is heading the Gore campaign in Maryland.

Meanwhile, the state's Republican leaders maintain hopes - at least publicly - of Bush carrying the state. With little likelihood of a major Bush advertising blitz here, Republican organizers, like their opponents, are focusing on a grass-roots push in Maryland.

The GOP, for example, will soon announce an "Educators for Bush" group to boast the governor's education record in Texas, said two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who is heading Bush's Maryland effort.

Conceding that Gore was ahead as the campaign reached its unofficial kickoff this weekend, Sauerbrey said the race would tighten now that Bush, as expected, has gone on the offensive against the vice president's record.

Another ranking Republican, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he is "cautiously optimistic" Bush can win Maryland. "I see a recognition by center and right-of-center voters that this is an opportunity to win," he said.

There are no plans to bring Bush to Maryland, a state he has visited twice for fund-raisers last year.

"I would tend to doubt Bush will campaign in Maryland," said Kevin Igoe, a veteran Republican political adviser in Maryland. "And I think that would be the correct decision."

Igoe and other political operatives agree on the political formula a Republican must use to carry Maryland - but concede the task is difficult.

First, Bush must win over Maryland's large contingent of swing voters - registered Democrats and independents with some conservative leanings - including so-called "Reagan Democrats" in areas such as Baltimore County's east side, Arbutus and northern Anne Arundel County.

"There are so many Democrats who've always voted Republican. There are tens of thousands of them," Ehrlich said. "We have to make sure they all vote."

Second, Republicans have to hope that Election Day turnout by traditional Democrats, particularly African-Americans, is anemic. Blacks constitute a quarter of the state's population - or as much as 20 percent of the voting population - and are the Democratic Party's most reliable voting bloc.

President Clinton won overwhelming support from African-American voters in his two presidential runs.

Black officials in Maryland say Gore - who lacks some of Clinton's personal skills - will have to win over black voters by stressing what is at stake in the election, such as appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, where issues such as affirmative action often are decided.

"We want folks to know that there is a clear choice here," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat. "It's so important to galvanize the black community."

McFadden and other African-American leaders in the state say they are beginning to detect enthusiasm for Gore and his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, among black voters. In the next two months, the focus will be on getting them to the polling place in November.

"Everywhere I go, I will consistently push on voting and getting out the vote," said Del. Talmadge Branch, another East Baltimore Democrat. "That's the only thing I see that we need to do now."

A poll released last week by Annapolis-based Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc. showed Gore leading Bush in Maryland by 51 percent to 36 percent. Gore is ahead among African-American voters here by a margin of 11 to 1, and holds a solid lead among independent voters.

Igoe, the Republican political consultant, said such numbers suggest that the Bush camp might have to try not to win Maryland, but merely to scare the Gore forces.

"I think the Bush campaign would like to find a way to make Gore play defense in Maryland," Igoe said. "Every time you put resources into a state which should be part of your base and should already be wrapped up, it's coming from another state that's in play and should be fought over."