Obama-Hillary Battle Hits the Potomac Primaries

Ryan Cooper, 23, moved through the crowd of about 75 people gathered early this morning in the unfinished office space in Largo, Md., which for the next week would be the Obama '08 headquarters in Maryland.

He handed out name and address lists, maps, pens and shiny-new pamphlets, a captain arming troops for what has become a major battle in the war over the Democratic nomination for president.

"Our goal is three fold," he told the volunteers who had come to canvass neighborhoods in Prince George's County. "Remind people to vote in the Maryland primary on Feb. 12; if they're already supporting the senator, ask them to volunteer; and if they don't know, tell them about Sen. (Barack) Obama."A1 PotomacPrimaries.JPG

The presence in Maryland of the former University of Maryland student and Obama campaign organizer, part of the team who helped Obama rout his opponents in South Carolina, was one of many signs that the battleground for the United States presidency had shifted to the Mid-Atlantic.

With Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Obama, D-Ill., coming out of the avalanche of votes on Super Tuesday near even, all eyes have turned to the "Potomac Primaries," the Feb. 12 primary elections in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Both candidates have trumpeted endorsements and campaign operatives are planning appearances and have dispatched teams of paid staff and volunteers.

"This is a really tight race," said Candice Tolliver, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.

"So every delegate counts, every voter counts, every state counts."

The senator's campaign is already running three different ads in the two states and the district, one featuring Caroline Kennedy, daughter of former President John Kennedy, who endorsed Obama last week, and the others showing snippets of the senator's speeches on the campaign trail. The campaign is also targeting Latino voters through its Maryland Latinos for Obama initiative, which was launched Feb. 4. But most of the campaign involves volunteers canvassing neighborhoods and holding house parties and rallies, Tolliver said.

"The blueprint for the rest of the country is the blueprint we're following here," she said. "It's a bottom-up strategy; we're empowering people in their communities to act as agents of change and ambassadors of Sen. Obama," she said. "It's really working for us on the ground."

With 238 delegates up for grabs, the triumvirate is an attractive prize, especially for Obama.

"He moves into Maryland, D.C. and Virginia in a really strong position," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"All three would vote for him."

Obama has already garnered some major endorsements, including, Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, Maryland's Comptroller Peter Franchot, Attorney General Doug Gansler and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings; Virginia's Gov. Timothy Kaine, Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and more recently U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, who represents the coal mining counties of Southwest Virginia, where the highest percentage -- 94 percent -- of white voters are located.

A strong African-American voter base in the three jurisdictions, particularly in Prince George's County, also bodes well for Obama, Sabato said, as does his popularity among young people like University of Maryland student Wanika Fisher, who signed up as a volunteer.

"I'm a big fan," Fisher, 19, said. "I really believe he is for the people and is willing to make a difference."

Marc Singer, 35, a professor of English at Howard University, who is white, said he likes Obama because he "brings new ideas."

"I also like the fact that he showed strong and early opposition to the war in Iraq," he said.

Still, analysts say, the outcome of the primaries is not set in stone; Clinton, too, has her support in the area.

"It really seems to be split down the middle on par with the nation, maybe a little more in favor of Obama but not overly," said D.C. Democratic Party spokesman David Meadows. Sabato said said the race is hard to judge because there are contradictory trends.

"The electorate in Virginia and Maryland tends to be highly educated and affluent, and they lean toward Obama, [and] he's been attracting independents, but women comprise the majority of the electorate and they've been supporting Clinton."

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins, said, however, that Democrats in the Washington area are more institutional and would identify with Clinton.

"Democrats in the Washington suburbs show an inclination to vote for Clinton, because they represent establishment -- institutional employees like government workers and policy wonks," Crenson said. "That's what Hillary is while Obama is more inspirational."

Meg Ferguson, a government lawyer, a Maryland for Hillary volunteer and self-described "policy wonk," said she supports Hillary because of her experience and her strength.

"I support Hillary because I admire what she's done in her career," the Baltimore County resident said. "It wasn't obvious that she would win the Senate race and it wasn't obvious that she would be a successful senator, [but] she got things done for her constituents," "Hillary will go and fight for us."

Ferguson and other volunteers, she said, has been working since last August, canvassing neighborhoods, distributing campaign material and working phone banks.

And Clinton also has more high profile supporters, including Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who will host several events for her; Prince George's County Executive John Johnson and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., national chair of the Hillary 2008 campaign, who led about 50 volunteers in a mini-rally in Baltimore over the weekend.

"This election is not about gender, it's about an agenda," Mikulski said in a statement. "When we put Hillary in the Oval Office, she will get us back on the right track, restoring our national honor and repairing friendships around the world."

Whatever their choices, Democratic voters in the area agree that they are proud their vote will make a significant impact on this year's election.

"We're excited," Meadows said. "It's good to know the votes of the residents of the District of Columbia will make a difference in selecting the next president."

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