ANNAPOLIS -- To an exceptional degree, this year's battle over abortion has produced a wave of activism in Maryland that partisans believe will be felt profoundly in the outcome of dozens of state legislative races.
With two weeks remaining before primaries, volunteers on both sides of the issue are working for General Assembly candidates in numbers that organizers and politicians say are unprecedented. Political action committees, some of which didn't exist four years ago, have poured more than $75,000 into legislative campaigns in 1990.
"It's always easy to motivate people in presidential races," said Michael W. Burns, chairman of Maryland Right to Life's political arm. "But for local elections, this is a lot of activity."
Unlike the statewide gun control referendum of 1988, the abortion campaign this year has evolved into district-by-district skirmishes, principally in the Washington and Baltimore suburbs.
Antiabortion groups have dispatched volunteers to work in selected campaigns, with some groups maintaining such low profiles that they declined to release lists of their endorsed candidates. By contrast, abortion-rights organizations have trumpeted their endorsements but have chosen, for the most part, to remain independent of candidates' organizations and concentrate on identifying voters and raising consciousness on the issue.
Though they agree on little else, the two sides trace the heightened activity this year to the same events: last summer's Supreme Court decision giving more power to states in limiting abortions, the embittered stalemate in the state Senate in March and the July resignation of abortion-rights Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.
"This issue is going to be critical, and I think we're right where the public is," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), an abortion-rights leader who has no opposition for reelection this year. "Women feel threatened."
Said Patricia Kelly, a leader of Maryland Right to Life: "People who have never done things before are doing things in this election. They've been motivated . . . by the Supreme Court saying it's going to be left to state government to make these decisions."
Political analysts and partisans alike remain divided about the impact of such heavy volunteer activism in the legislative races.
As a general proposition, polls have shown repeatedly that a clear majority of Maryland residents support letting women make the choice on abortion. Whether voters believe that should be an unrestricted right, and whether it will be the prime factor in specific races, is far less clear.
But with low voter turnout expected and few other issues in play, primary voters casting ballots solely on the basis of a candidate's view on abortion could provide the difference in contested Senate races, which typically bring 8,000 to 12,000 people per district to the polls.
Burns, though conceding that abortion is a flashpoint in dozens of races for the 188 General Assembly seats, said its importance may be diminishing.
"A month ago, the issue was very important, but it's not as important as the nation teeters on the brink of war and the economy is in trouble. That grabs the public attention," Burns said.
For three months, the Maryland affiliate of the National Abortion Rights Action League sent forth volunteers each Wednesday and Saturday from its Silver Spring office to canvass Democratic voters in three suburban districts. In each case, NARAL is backing primary challengers to antiabortion Democratic senators: Del. Patricia R. Sher against Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut and Del. Mary H. Boergers against Sen. S. Frank Shore in Montgomery County and Del. Gloria Gary Lawlah against Sen. Frank J. Komenda in Prince George's.
Karyn Strickler, NARAL's executive director, said the organization now is calling back voters identified as favoring its cause and urging them to support the three candidates it is backing.
Maryland NARAL hopes to provide a margin of about 1,000 votes for each of the candidates, Strickler said. "If each campaign is doing well on its own and working hard, our involvement should be the thing that puts them over the top."
Karen Ringen, public affairs director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, said the organization cannot endorse or oppose candidates. But volunteers are active in other ways. In the Schweinhaut-Sher race, Planned Parenthood volunteers have telephoned 2,500 registered Democrats, Ringen said.
"We've been saying that the abortion issue was going to be the prime issue in upcoming elections," Ringen said. "We wanted to find out if that was true. From the preliminary results, people said in past elections they really didn't think about it. This year, it was going to be one of the major issues."
For antiabortion interest groups, the strategy has been to ask volunteers to help favored candidates.
Sen. Francis X. Kelly (D-Baltimore County), a leader of the filibuster early this year that blocked passage of a bill that would have guaranteed continued access to abortion in Maryland, said he has been "very blessed" by volunteer help in his primary campaign against Janice Piccinini, an abortion-rights advocate.
Kelly, who estimated he has 300 volunteers working for him, uses 10 of them on telephone banks two nights a week and takes crowds with him when he campaigns door-to-door on weekends.
"Mine's the hottest race in the county," Kelly said. "I've always believed you win elections with the candidate that's most visible with the most volunteers. I'd rather have that than money."
Maryland Right to Life is counting on the strength of its 60,000-member mailing list and will send out an estimated 150,000 fliers -- mostly through churches -- on the Sunday before the Sept. 11 primary.
"Because we feel the candidates we have are not one-issue candidates, we feel we could best serve them by helping them be elected the way he or she wants to be elected," Patricia Kelly said.
Antiabortion leaders outside the General Assembly said they would be satisfied with electing 16 like-minded senators, the number they had during the last legislative session. With that bare minimum they could resort to a filibuster to halt action on abortion-rights legislation in the 47-member Senate.
Leaders of the abortion-rights movement, on the other hand, say they hope to solidify what they perceive as a majority in the 141-member House of Delegates and pick up two or three seats in the Senate.
"I have hopes of creating a filibuster-proof state Senate," Strickler said. "We want three seats for a clean codification of Roe v. Wade."
But Right to Life's Kelly said the outcome of the election may be less than dramatic.
"I have a feeling that Sept. 12 we may know what we already knew: There's a great difference of opinion on this issue in Maryland."