- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Democrats and Republicans around here are so unaccustomed to attention from presidential candidates or the national press during a primary season that few events were scheduled to capitalize on this year’s unprecedented import.

“In some ways, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We’ve never felt so important in this process before,” said Adam C. Ortiz, the mayor of the Prince George’s County town of Edmonston who spoke on behalf of Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama at a candidates forum this weekend.

Given that the first Potomac Primary — when Virginia, Maryland and D.C. voters will cast ballots simultaneously a week from today — is gaining steam, 2008 will be different from 2004, at least among the Democratic contenders for the presidency.

“It’s pretty impressive for a national campaign to get involved and pay significant attention to our little event,” said Scott A. Surovell, immediate past chairman of the Mount Vernon District Democratic Committee.

The district held a straw poll during its Mardi Gras party Saturday evening at the Riverside Apartments in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

“There is a lot at stake, and it’s nice to be recognized. … We matter,” said Mr. Surovell, recently voted chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. He planned the pre-Super Tuesday event last fall, thinking the primary would be held too late for folks to care.

The get-out-the-vote fundraiser for this Northern Virginia district was among the handful of voter education and organizing events Republicans and Democrats held around the Beltway to generate interest and energy for the three primaries.

Local and national political candidates started airing television advertisements in the region Friday, while volunteer phone banks were established in Arlington County and literature drives (or so-called “lit drops”) were visible in Alexandria, Montgomery and Baltimore.

“We won’t have any trouble getting volunteers,” Mr. Surovell said.

An Internet search of candidate and party sites indicates that the Democrats aren’t wasting any time. Still, last week at the D.C. Republican Committee’s annual Lincoln-Douglass Day Dinner, Sen. John McCain received 43 percent of the straw poll vote; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 35.3 percent; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 8.1 percent, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 5.1 percent, Chairman Robert Kabel said.

Representatives of four Republican presidential campaigns spoke before a crowd of about 50 senior citizens at a forum Friday at the Collington Episcopal Care Community in Mitchellville, said Curtis Bury, co-chairman of the retirement home’s government awareness committee.

“The purpose is to get our people educated for the Maryland primary coming up on the 12th,” Mr. Bury said. “It’s important that we be nonpartisan … so we deliberately did not ask for a show of hands to see which way they were leaning.”

Former Maryland state Sen. Gloria Lawlah of Prince George’s County spoke for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York at a similar forum Saturday featuring Democratic candidates and their surrogates before a crowd of about 100 seniors. Their questions “cross the waterfront,” Mr. Bury said, adding that his committee is already collecting absentee ballots.

Unlike voters in Maryland and the District, Virginians are allowed to vote in either primary regardless of their party affiliation. Unlike the winner-take-all Republican primaries, Democratic candidates are awarded primary delegates based on the proportion of votes they receive. That is why their nomination is not locked up.

“Virginia is in play, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both candidates, Clinton and Obama, at the J.J. dinner in Richmond this weekend,” Mr. Surovell said of the annual Jefferson-Jackson celebration, which is sold out this year.

“People are excited, optimistic, hopeful and all the good stuff,” said Laura Sonnenmark, event chairwoman for the Mount Vernon Mardi Gras party, which 200 Democrats attended. Of those who voted, 54.35 percent favored Mrs. Clinton and 43.48 percent favored Mr. Obama.

Mr. Surovell cautioned that “straw polls are unscientific and they are either … about the candidate’s electability or the strength of the candidate’s organization.” While he was not surprised by the poll results after they opened the door and saw the Clinton supporters arrive, he was surprised “that they treated our straw poll as a serious event.”

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that one of Mrs. Clinton’s senior campaign deputies, Mike Kettering, lives in the Mount Vernon district, Mr. Surovell added.

“In this interesting and unprecedented primary, none of us knows what to expect because none of us has been here before,” Mr. Ortiz concurred. Then, happily asked of the Potomac Primary’s newfound prominence, “Oh, wow, this is what it feels like?”

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