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Shuffling Candidates, Cards in Md.

Democratic Club Members Weigh Primary Choices

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 29, 2004; Page A01

Every Wednesday night, they file into the low-slung cinder-block meeting hall beneath the smokestacks of the Brandon Shores power plant: retired truckers, steelworkers, barbers, bartenders.

As they have been doing since the second year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, members of the Stoney Creek Democratic Club in northern Anne Arundel County fill plastic tubs with beer, heap their plates with franks and beans, deal cards and kibitz about politics.

In recent years, Stoney Creek has become home to some of Maryland's most conservative Democrats. Although they have remained registered Democrats, precinct results show they have crossed party lines in increasing numbers to support George H.W. Bush in 1992, Robert J. Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. two years ago.

Last week, though, as club members prepared for Tuesday's Maryland presidential primary, there were strong signs that the swing voters are considering a return to their Democratic roots -- and taking a serious look at Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.). Anger with President Bush over the war in Iraq and the loss of jobs to factories overseas are driving the change, they said.

"We have got to get a Democrat back in Washington," said an impassioned Richard Ames, 65, who said he will vote for Kerry on Tuesday.

Club president Ames, a retired trucker from Orchard Beach, said he wasn't fond of Bill Clinton, and he still snarls about former governor Parris N. Glendening (D), calling him "Spendening." But none of that compares to how he feels about George W. Bush.

"I can't stand him," he said. "It's mainly because of the Iraqi situation. There are young men over there dying every day. It's like Vietnam all over again."

Independent-minded, centrist Democrats such as Ames make up one of three key Democratic constituencies targeted by Kerry, Edwards and the other candidates seeking a Super Tuesday win in Maryland. Bethesda pollster Keith Haller defined the groups in broad terms: well-educated, progressive Democrats, mostly populating Montgomery and Howard counties; African American voters, registered in large numbers in Baltimore and Prince George's County; and moderate conservatives in traditional Democratic areas, such as the blue-collar suburbs in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, who have gravitated to Republican presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan.

In other primary states, Haller said, the so-called Reagan Democrats "were moving toward Edwards." But it is not clear, he said, whether Edwards has enough time to cause those people to turn out for him.

At the Stoney Creek Democratic Club, the sentiment seems stronger for Kerry, with many saying they hope for a Kerry-Edwards ticket.

"Lots of places I go, I hear about a Kerry-Edwards ticket," Ames said.

Stoney Creek members have had to view the 2004 presidential campaign from a distance. Competing for attention with delegate-heavy states such as New York, California and Ohio, Maryland has received scant glances from Kerry and Edwards. Neither candidate has aired television spots, and most major campaign events have been headlined by surrogates. Edwards's sole appearance was in Prince George's more than a week ago. Kerry, who has attracted the support of most of the state's top Democratic officeholders, is scheduled to campaign in Baltimore tomorrow.

Still, both men have gotten the attention of Democrats such as Stoney Creek member Lou Frazetti, 82, who put three sons through college on the money he earned giving dollar haircuts at a barbershop near his house. He arrived at the Democratic club Wednesday night grumbling about rising property assessments and about the $4,400 a year he pays for Blue Cross Blue Shield without the benefit of a prescription drug plan.

"It's hard to cope," Frazetti said. "And I don't think this man," meaning Bush, "is looking out for old people."

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