Maryland, with only 10 electoral votes at stake in Tuesday's presidential election, has emerged in the final week of the campaign as a symbolic battleground where President Reagan and Walter F. Mondale are vying to prove their appeal in a traditional Democratic stronghold.
Although the outcome will have little bearing on the national race, Mondale's campaign has zeroed in on Maryland during the past seven days to try to defuse Reagan's apparent lead in one of six states that President Carter won in 1980.
Mondale officials are eager to carry this state to blunt the force of Reagan's expected victory nationwide and to prove that the Democratic Party still has a pocket of solid support.
A Reagan victory in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 and where the state's top officeholders are Democrats, would add credibility to the president's claim that the American electorate is undergoing a "realignment" in which traditional Democratic voters are willing to abandon their party and vote Republican.
In addition, with a cross-section of voters ranging from inner-city blacks to farmers to blue-collar ethnics to young urban professionals to union members, Maryland is an attractive political bounty for the GOP, which is trying to shed its image as an exclusive party of the rich.
Maryland's sudden -- if largely symbolic -- significance became apparent last week when Mondale, his running mate Geraldine A. Ferraro, and Vice President Bush made last-minute campaign appearances to drum up support for their respective tickets.
"Are we gonna carry Maryland?" Mondale asked a crowd of 8,000 cheering supporters at a rally in Baltimore's glistening Inner Harbor last week. "These pollsters and these slick magazines are telling us the election is over . . . . But polls don't vote. People do."
The back-to-back visits to Baltimore by the Democratic standard-bearers were designed to ensure a large voter turnout on Tuesday, particularly in the city's critical black community, which Mondale must carry by a huge margin to guarantee a statewide victory.
During her campaign stop, Ferraro visited a church-run day care center in West Baltimore, which state campaign officials said boosted spirits among black voters who have complained in recent months that the Mondale campaign had been insensitive to their concerns.
The flurry of campaigning renewed hope within the Mondale camp that he will pull off an upset in Maryland on Tuesday, contradicting two Baltimore newspaper polls published today that show Reagan maintaining a solid lead.
"Maryland is on the move for Mondale-Ferraro," U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, one of Mondale's earliest backers in the Senate, said optimistically last week. "It's beginning right here and it's moving across the country."
The Democratic scramble has not gone unnoticed in Republican quarters. Bush, who has spent most of the past week stumping for GOP House and Senate candidates around the country, campaigned in Baltimore County yesterday for Helen Delich Bentley, the only Republican congressional challenger in Maryland who is viewed as having a chance to win. She is running against Democratic Rep. Clarence D. Long, who has held the 2nd District seat for 22 years.
Republican officials hope the spirited 15-minute Bush appearance will boost Bentley's chances and spur a large voter turnout in Baltimore County, which Reagan carried by about 5 percentage points in 1980. GOP strategists believe that if he can enlarge the margin this year it will offset Democratic gains in Baltimore city.
"Take nothing for granted; take no chances; go to the polls," Bush told about 1,000 supporters at a rally in Towson.
With two days remaining before the election, strategists in both parties agree the outcome hinges on the Washington suburbs and Baltimore city.
Michael Frazer, director of the state Mondale-Ferraro campaign, said the Democratic ticket can carry Maryland by winning only two of its 24 jurisdictions, Baltimore and Prince George's County.
For Mondale the key is a heavy turnout among black voters, thousands of whom registered for the first time to vote for Jesse L. Jackson in the May 8 state primary.
Maryland GOP Chairman Allan C. Levey said the Reagan-Bush ticket will win the state if 33 percent of Baltimore city votes Republican, a larger share than Reagan won in 1980. Carter carried Baltimore with 133,000 votes -- more than 70 percent of the total.
In Prince George's, Mondale officials said they need to double the 20,000-vote Democratic margin of four years ago to ensure a statewide victory.
Levey said that despite increases in black voter registration in Prince George's and Baltimore, Reagan should improve his showing this year in both areas by attracting ethnic voters who normally vote Democratic.
While both sides agreed that Reagan is likely to carry Montgomery County, the margin of victory there will have some bearing on who wins the state. The wild card in Montgomery is a sizable group of Democrats in Bethesda and Rockville who supported Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) in the primary but who may be leaning to Reagan.
Whatever the outcome, officials in both parties are predicting a closer race than is forecast in the polls, which have consistently shown Reagan leading.
Today, the Baltimore Sun published a new poll of 806 likely voters statewide, showing Reagan leading Mondale by a margin of 49 percent to 38 percent, with 13 percent still undecided. The poll was conducted Oct. 23 to 25, before the Democratic candidates' appearances in the state, and it has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
The Baltimore News-American/WBAL-TV poll, also released today, shows Mondale gaining 1 percent on Reagan during the past month, but Reagan is still leading 54 to 43. Its margin of error is 5 points.