Maryland's political party leaders oversaw a final thrust of campaigning yesterday and began bracing for an Election Day answer to a two-year-old question: Did Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2002 victory do anything to loosen the Democrats' grip on the state?
With all of Maryland's congressional incumbents showing strength in the latest polls, and Sen. John F. Kerry maintaining a healthy lead over President Bush in the state, both party chairmen said yesterday that they intend to focus more on subtle shifts in voting patterns than on victory or defeat.
How Maryland blacks vote in the presidential contest, for instance, could signal whether Republicans have succeeded in tilting the state's minority voters away from their traditional Democratic loyalties, said Republican Chairman John Kane.
Or, if Democrats can translate this year's sizable increase in party registration into actual votes, that could improve the outlook for a bid to defeat Ehrlich, said Democratic Chairman Isiah Leggett.
The hope for both party leaders is that this election will provide the first real indication of whether Ehrlich's victory was a watershed in Maryland politics, propelling the state toward a long-term realignment -- or whether it was a fluke in a state in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1.
"Ultimately, I think the results will say a great deal philosophically and ideologically about where the state is," Leggett said. "We'll know if what we had in the governor was an exception, and not a philosophical switch among voters in the state."
Perhaps most revealing, Leggett and Kane agreed, will be the outcome of the race between veteran U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and her challenger, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R).
Mikulski has long been a colorful and popular figure in Maryland, as evidenced by the solid victories she posted in 1992 and 1998, when she carried 71 percent of the vote. If she can match those numbers this year, Leggett believes, it will be a sure sign that "this is not a state that's veering to the right."
While shaking hands outside a Prince Frederick supermarket yesterday, Mikulski said she is certain "there is no sea change."
"The Democrats are in control in this state," she said, noting that the party continues to control both houses of the General Assembly and that Kerry enjoys a strong lead in state polls. Republicans control the governorship, she said, "for now."
But unlike her past two races, when her GOP challenge came from a perennial candidate, her opponent this time is Pipkin, the wealthy incumbent state senator from Queen Anne's County who has poured more than $1 million into his campaign.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who was campaigning with Mikulski yesterday, said Pipkin was a far more formidable candidate than her previous opponents. "Anytime you face an unlimited war chest, you've got to worry," he said.
Mikulski has raised more than $5 million for the race, and Pipkin said she will outspend him 3 to 1.
Kane said that regardless of the outcome, Pipkin's candidacy could be viewed as a positive sign for the party. After Tuesday's elections, he said, Republican strategists will be studying the performance of all of this year's GOP candidates. The party will look at how much money each Republican candidate raised, what percentage of Republican and Democratic vote they got and how well they performed, compared with previous years.
Pipkin said he believes his performance will prove that Republicans have a stronger presence in Maryland. He spent yesterday going door-to-door in Harford County, handing out leaflets and asking prospective voters for support. At one townhouse, he ran into Patrick Addington, who was manning the sales office.
"We are fighting for you, my friend," Addington said. He said he liked Mikulski -- "She has done a good job" -- but prefers "someone with an 'R' behind their name."
It's a sentiment Pipkin will need to find in great abundance Tuesday, but recent polls indicate that those feelings remain scarce in Maryland, at least with respect to his race with Mikulski.
Donald Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said he has seen nothing to indicate that Democrats are losing their heavy edge in the state. "I don't think there will be any basis for saying there's a realignment," he said. "All the tea leaves say the Democrats will do very well in Maryland."
Kane agreed that there are no signs of dramatic shifts in the makeup of Maryland's U.S. House delegation, which consists of two Republicans and six Democrats. But he is looking to see if Bush can perform better Tuesday than he did in 2000, when he lost Maryland to Vice President Al Gore by 17 percentage points.
Most revealing about the president's numbers, Kane said, will be how Bush scores with voters in key swing counties, such as Anne Arundel and Howard -- jurisdictions that could prove critical to Ehrlich.
Bruce Wesbury, the Charles County Bush/Cheney chairman, said another key swing county will be his. At a bowling alley in Waldorf, he and other Republican activists lay in wait to deliver that message to Mikulski and her partner on the campaign trail, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D). Wearing a Bush T-shirt and holding a bullhorn, Wesbury labeled the two Democrats "tax-and-spend liberals -- period. That's all they're good for."
Wesbury argued that Charles County is ground zero for Maryland's rightward shift. Ehrlich won the county in 2002, even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans then, as they do now. In 2000, Gore defeated Bush by 105 votes in Charles, out of nearly 44,000 votes cast for presidential candidates. He said this election, with Ehrlich in power, will provide a "real test" of the state's shift to the right.
Staff writers Cameron Barr and Miranda Spivack contributed to this report.