At rally for O'Malley, Obama urges voters to reelect 'a great governor'

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 10:27 PM

President Barack Obama on Thursday exhorted a sea of mostly black, young supporters in Prince George's County - who broke into chants of "Obama!" and "We've got your back!" - not to make him "look bad" by failing to turn out next month to reelect Gov. Martin O'Malley and a slate of Maryland Democrats to Congress.

"What the other side is counting on is that this time around, you are going to stay home. They are counting on your silence, they are counting on amnesia, they are counting on your apathy, especially the young people here," Obama said. "They figure Obama's not on the ballot - you're not going to come out and vote. Well, Maryland, you have got to prove them wrong."

Obama lavished praise on "Martin," calling O'Malley one of the best governors in the nation and saying Marylanders should be excited to go to the polls for a governor he said is - like himself - "rock solid" in his commitment to education and tirelessly fighting for working-class families.

"Martin's been a great governor for a great state, which is why I hope you're fired up in these last few weeks," Obama said.

But in Prince George's, where Obama's approval rating is 85 percent, it was clearly far more Obama's star power than excitement about the midterms that drew people to the rally. And for Obama, the return to Bowie State University - where four years ago he signed autographs and captivated a crowd of hundreds - seemed more like an hour-long political oasis. An estimated 7,000 people, mostly college students and supporters who said they counted themselves true believers, packed in around a stage built in the center of campus.

At times, the crowd's adulation for Obama overshadowed his advocacy for O'Malley.

Screams of "We love you, Obama!" interrupted the president twice.

"I love you, back," he said at one point, "but I want to talk about this election now." He paused to point out to paramedics two of the dozen or so audience members who fainted. Thousands had walked a mile or more from parking areas, stood in line and waited hours on the sun-drenched quad for Obama to speak.

'Two distinct things'

Willistine Page, a retired U.S. State Department personnel officer from Clinton, said it was entirely Obama who drew her to the rally.

"I want to continually support Obama," said Page, an African American who attended the president's inauguration last year. "I think it's important we stick with him in good times and bad times."

She said she arrived less enthused about O'Malley. "The president and the governor are two distinct things, of course they are." But Page said that after hearing Obama's praise for O'Malley, she was inclined to consider volunteering for his campaign. "It makes me want to be more active," she said.

Ditto for Narae Wright, 17, a Bowie State freshman from Suitland. Along with her friends Ishalay White, 17, of Fort Washington and Jyla Wooten, 18, of Upper Marlboro, Wright waited more than three hours outside for Obama. There was no question that if he had not come to campus they would not have come out, they said. "He was powerful, inspirational," Wooten said. "Not too many people come here and say to us on a daily basis to follow our dreams," she said, adding that she would take his urgings to heart and vote Nov. 2.

An island of calm?

While O'Malley tried to energize voters in Prince George's, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. held court with more than 100 women at a luncheon in Potomac. Ehrlich played down the significance of Obama's visit and said his own message would resonate with Maryland voters.

"The country is in a fiscally conservative mood, and Maryland is, too," Ehrlich said in an interview. "People are very concerned about their mortgages and smart kids who can't get a job."

In much the way Republicans four years ago hoped Maryland would remain an island of calm for the party's incumbents in a storm of midterm upheaval, Democrats are banking that Maryland will remain a solidly blue state after Nov. 2.

The odds are looking better for O'Malley and Maryland Democrats this time than for Republicans and Ehrlich four years ago. Ehrlich's loss in 2006 came in a strong year for Democrats, but it was notable because he was the only incumbent governor with an approval rating of more than 50 percent to lose his seat.

Similarly, this year may be a strong one for Republicans, but a loss by O'Malley would be an even bigger upset. Democrats hold a 2 to 1 advantage over Republicans among registered voters, and they are lining up solidly behind O'Malley, according to recent polls. O'Malley is more popular now than at any time since 2004, according to a Washington Post poll released last week.

Introducing Obama, O'Malley yelled: "They can take back New Jersey, and they can take back Virginia, but they can't take back Maryland, because Maryland moves forward," he said, referring to Republican wins last year by governors Chis Christie and Robert F. McDonnell.

The youth, black votes

Obama has used Maryland as a backdrop for several events and policy announcements in the past two years, and he was expected to make at least one campaign stop in the state before next month.

But the president had committed to Thursday's event before recent polls showed O'Malley with a growing lead, and the stop in the traditionally blue state stood out in a calendar that has kept the president traveling mostly to true toss-up states, many in the Midwest. He flew to Illinois for campaign events after the rally in Bowie.

Obama's job in Maryland on Thursday fit with efforts he began last month to reinvigorate the youth and the black votes that helped propel him to victory two years ago.

As in other states, registration and voter turnout among those groups surged for Maryland Democrats in 2008. Maryland has a higher percentage of African Americans than any state outside the Deep South, and black voters tend to break heavily for Democrats. But turnout was dismal last month in Prince George's and other majority-black jurisdictions that will have few other competitive races besides that of O'Malley's on the ballot Nov. 2.

Strategists on both sides of Maryland's gubernatorial race say it will be nearly impossible for the Republican to win if African Americans can be motivated to go to the polls in numbers similar to those in 2008. They accounted for 25 percent of the electorate then, according to exit polls.

The message

Obama reiterated many themes familiar at recent campaign rallies on campuses in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but he built upon his criticism that special interests - and even foreign ones - are fueling excessive spending for Republicans, which he said has been cloaked by recent Supreme Court decisions.

"We're going to need to work even harder in this election. We are going to need to fight their millions of dollars with millions of voices," Obama said.

Onstage with Obama and O'Malley was Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who also has a big lead over Eric Wargotz (R) in her reelection bid. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and nearly every other member of Maryland's congressional delegation were also there.

One exception was Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. His office said he spent afternoon knocking on doors in the Eastern Shore district where he faces a stiff challenge from state Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County).

For the feel-good afternoon for most Maryland Democrats, there were also signs on campus that the economy had worn down some and that turning out to vote wouldn't be as obvious a thing to do as two years ago.

Marietta Smith, 18, a sophomore from Bowie, was raising money for the Make a Wish Foundation on campus and did not get to hear the speeches. She said she is "leaning towards O'Malley." But despite his pledges to keep tuition low at Maryland's public universities, she said several friends could not afford to return to Bowie this year because they could not find the funds.

Staff writers Ann E. Marimow, Miranda S. Spivack and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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