Saturday, July 16, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Democrats want to move the party’s primary elections from September to June to give their candidates more time to raise money and campaign directly against Republican opponents.

Party leaders say they are concerned about their candidates pummeling each other in September gubernatorial and U.S. Senate primary races, leaving the party fractured and with about five weeks to recover before the general elections. They say the change will help them stop Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from winning a second term and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele from winning the Senate race.

Democratic leaders such as Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, from Maryland’s 5th Congressional District, and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have already proposed the move, from early September to early June.

However, supporters acknowledge they will have difficulty getting enough votes to make the change when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, even though the majority of lawmakers are Democrats.

Republican lawmakers are expected to vote against such a change, and Mr. Ehrlich plans a veto. So the backers would need solid support from Democrats to override a veto.

Mr. Miller, Prince George’s Democrat, said he has enough votes for an override in the Senate, but there is less enthusiasm for an earlier primary in the House of Delegates, where 85 votes are needed to pass a bill over the governor’s objections.

“I don’t know how we’d get 85 votes,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, Montgomery County Democrat. “I think most conservative Democrats and rural Democrats don’t think it’s a good idea to change the rules late in the game.”

Mr. Miller said state Democrats should take a lesson from what happened last fall in Washington, where Democrat Christine Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi by just 291 votes out of 2.9 million cast.

He said Mrs. Gregoire had to spend more than $1 million in the primary to defend against a “marginal candidate,” which left her little time after a mid-September primary to focus on Mr. Rossi.

A measure in Washington’s legislative session this year failed to move the primary to August.

If Mr. Steele runs for the U.S. Senate, as expected, neither he nor Mr. Ehrlich should have significant opposition in the primary election. But that’s not the case for Democrats.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley are preparing to run for the gubernatorial nomination. And former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, from Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, are running for the seat of retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch is not among the supporters for the change.

Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said he has heard from many House Democrats that they would prefer a September primary. One concern is that a June primary would come about the time local elected officials are wrapping up work on their annual budgets, which would subject them to pressures from opponents as they make difficult decisions on spending and taxes.

Republicans say Democratic leaders are just trying to change the rules to get at the governor.

“It’s part of the continual game playing and overplaying the Democratic legislative leaders do to try to hurt the governor,” said Greg Massoni, Mr. Ehrlich’s press secretary.

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