LARGO, Md. – Maryland native Douglas Cook has been voting since 1952, but the lifelong Democrat said he cannot recall a Democratic primary causing as much excitement in Maryland as this one between Sens. John Edwards (search) and John Kerry (search).
"I love it," Cook said Friday, minutes after listening to a rousing stump speech by Edwards at Prince George's Community College.
Cook is not alone. For the first time in more than a dozen years, Maryland could play a decisive role in determining the Democratic nominee for president, analysts and activists said, even though it is one of the smaller of the 10 states that go to the polls on Super Tuesday (search).
"Lo and behold, the primary has some significance. Every delegate counts," said Allan J. Lichtman, a history professor at American University and an expert on presidential campaigns.
"The state will come into play," said Josh White, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
The message is not lost on Edwards, the North Carolina senator who stopped in Largo on Friday before heading to New York, another Super Tuesday state.
Edwards was 35 minutes late, but that did not seem to matter to the standing-room-only crowd of more than 500, who were up on their feet applauding and cheering numerous times in the hot, stuffy room.
Edwards, who entered to the John Mellencamp song, "Small Town," launched into his standard "Two Americas" speech, promising to bring government back to the people and away from Washington insiders, casting himself as a fighter for working America.
"It was terrific," said Cook, who attached a handmade sign, "Korean War Veterans for Edwards," to his shirt with Edwards campaign stickers.
"He's so far ahead of everyone else," Cook said. "I'm going to do everything I can to get him elected."
Kerry's campaign has not yet scheduled a stop in Maryland, but his state campaign chairman, Wayne L. Rogers, said he expects the Massachusetts senator will make an appearance here once his schedule is firmed up.
Even without Kerry, Rogers said a "full-fledged campaign" is under way in Maryland, with 10 paid staff members, 300 volunteers across the state and plans to have paid staff in every county soon. On Friday, the campaign announced the creation of the Maryland Veterans for Kerry (search), a steering committee that will reach out to veterans across the state.
Because Kerry is running a "national campaign," Rogers said Maryland is just as important as any other state on Super Tuesday.
"John Kerry is working hard for every vote, and will work hard in Maryland. Nothing is being taken for granted," said Rogers, a former chair of the state Democratic Party.
An early February poll by Gonzales Research (search) of 326 likely Democratic primary voters in Maryland showed 45 percent favoring Kerry to 8 percent for Edwards. But that poll also gave 14 percent to Howard Dean (search), who dropped out of the race Wednesday.
Kerry had raised $360,000 in Maryland by the end of 2003, more than twice the $165,000 Edwards raised in the state, according to campaign finance reports. Dean raised the most, with $515,000 coming from the state.
Maryland has 69 delegates up for grabs on March 2, compared to California's 370, New York's 236 and Ohio's 140. But votes in the 10 Super Tuesday states will determine more than 26 percent of the total delegates for the nominating convention, the biggest one-day vote in the primary.
If Kerry, the current front-runner, can sweep the big states that day, Maryland's significance will diminish, Lichtman said. But if Edwards can claim one of those states, he said, then Maryland "comes out more significant than one thought."
Rep. Albert Wynn (search), D-Md., an Edwards supporter who introduced the North Carolina senator Friday, said that as Kerry and Edwards fight for every last vote, even a small number of delegates becomes desirable.
"If it gets to be a really close race, Maryland will be very important," Wynn said. "It's a small state . . . but as people are collecting delegates and this becomes very competitive, every vote counts, so that's why Maryland is getting attention."