- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella holds a firm lead over her Democratic challengers while Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger leads by a slim margin in a Democrat-friendly district, according to a poll of Maryland's key congressional races.

The poll, released yesterday by the Annapolis firm Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications Inc., measured voter sentiment in the 2nd and 8th congressional districts. Both are Republican-held seats that the Democrats see as chances to cut into the Republican Party's six-seat lead in the House of Representatives.

Mrs. Morella, a Republican, has consistently won in the 8th even though the district, made up mostly of Montgomery County, is largely Democratic. The state legislature redrew the district this year to add even more Democrats in Prince George's County.

But the poll found Mrs. Morella easily would beat the Democrats running against her if the election were held now. That includes Delegate Mark Shriver, a Kennedy clan member. Thirty-six percent of voters said they would vote for Mr. Shriver if he were matched up against Mrs. Morella, while 49 percent said they would vote for the congresswoman.

"Considering what they tried to do to the district, it seems to have little impact on her standing," said Morella campaign manager Tony Caligiuri.

Mrs. Morella would win 50 percent of the vote if matched up with state Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who would pick up 35 percent, according to the poll. Squared off against former Clinton administration official Ira Shapiro, Mrs. Morella would receive 53 percent of the vote to Mr. Shapiro's 29 percent.

Shriver campaign manager Kim Elliott said the campaign was focused on the crowded Democratic primary, not the general election. But she said Mr. Shriver's support among women, 44 percent to Mrs. Morella's 46 percent, shows Mrs. Morella is vulnerable among a key constituency.

"This woman's been in Congress for 16 years and is a woman, and Mark is almost beating her with women," Miss Elliott said.

The poll was conducted earlier this month using 401 registered voters in the 2nd District and 409 voters in the 8th District contacted by phone. It had a margin of error of five percentage points.

Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is vacating the 2nd District seat to run for governor. The district also has been redrawn this year and is now 62 percent registered Democrat to 26 percent registered Republican. It includes parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties and Baltimore city.

Despite that edge, Mr. Ruppersberger, a Democrat, had the support of 45 percent of voters polled. Republican Helen Bentley, who used to hold the 2nd District seat, picked up the support of 43 percent of voters in a head-to-head matchup with the county executive.

Mrs. Bentley's numbers were also high when voters were asked whether they had a "favorable" opinion of a candidate. Mrs. Bentley was favorable with 63 percent of voters, while Mr. Ruppersberger was favorable with 42 percent.

Mr. Ruppersberger scores well among black voters, many of whom live in Baltimore city and have been added to the district this year. Seventy-four percent of blacks supported the county executive, compared with 9 percent who backed Mrs. Bentley.

Ruppersberger campaign manager Jim Cauley said the poll numbers weren't surprising. "I've always thought it was going to be a tight race and we planned on it being a tight race all along," he said.

The poll also sampled Maryland voter support for President Bush, surveying 829 registered voters statewide with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Mr. Bush's approval rating was 69 percent statewide, with 19 percent disapproving and 12 percent undecided. He scored high across all regions and demographic groups.

The poll also found his endorsement of Mrs. Morella had little effect on the 8th District race. Democrats have long tried to tie Mrs. Morella to the Republican Party's conservative wing, but the centrist congresswoman always has been able to attract Democratic voters.

Sixty-two percent said control of the U.S. House would influence their vote; 38 percent said it wouldn't.

Of that number, 70 percent of Democrats said House control would sway their vote while 30 percent said it wouldn't affect them. For Republicans, the issue affected 59 percent of voters while 41 percent said it didn't matter.

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