Friday, Jan. 11, 2008

Franchot endorses Obama

Comptroller bucks governor; choice a sign ‘‘that it’s a close race”

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ANNAPOLIS — In a move that could deepen the rift between Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot and Gov. Martin O’Malley, Franchot announced on Thursday his support of U.S. Sen. Barack H. Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

‘‘I’m impressed by the diverse coalition that Senator Obama has gathered and the positive tone to his campaign,” Franchot told The Gazette. ‘‘To me, it’s amazing given how toxic and poisonous the partisan atmosphere is these days that he’s able to strike such a note of optimism and civility.”

The decision to back Obama contradicts O’Malley’s support of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, but Franchot maintained that it is not a rebuke of O’Malley.

‘‘There are lots of Democrats who are huge O’Malley supporters who have endorsed Obama and there will be more in the future,” he said. ‘‘I think that’s a reflection that it’s a close race ... and we’re all making our best judgments as to who the best candidate is.”

Franchot, who will campaign for Obama in South Carolina next weekend, said he long ago decided to wait until after the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary to make an endorsement.

‘‘It’s such a long process that I decided to wait until 2008 arrived,” he said. ‘‘The [general] election still is a long time away but at least I’m endorsing Obama in the same year that I’m going to vote for him.”

Franchot sent a letter to supporters on Thursday urging them to vote for Obama.

‘‘Senator Obama has shown that he can transcend the ideological and partisan divisions that have paralyzed our politics for far too long and inspire people to believe again in the promise of America,” the e-mail said. ‘‘As someone who has spent his whole life bringing about change at the grassroots level, he is the right man at the right time to lead this nation and I am proud to endorse his candidacy.”

He becomes the third major Maryland politician to back Obama, joining Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. O’Malley, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and U.S. Rep. C.A. ‘‘Dutch” Ruppersberger are among the state’s most high-profile Clinton backers.

Franchot informed O’Malley of his decision on Wednesday and said his response was ‘‘noncommittal.”

Franchot’s endorsement came on the same day that U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry announced his support of Obama. The coincidence ‘‘shows the type of draw that Senator Obama has,” Gansler said.

‘‘Peter Franchot is somebody who doesn’t always embrace the establishment, while John Kerry is the quintessential Democratic establishment [figure],” he added.

Gansler doesn’t believe the split support among top Democrats will have any lasting impact. ‘‘I don’t think who the elected officials support in Maryland is any reflection of their support of other elected officials. I don’t begrudge Governor O’Malley for his support of Senator Clinton and he doesn’t begrudge me for my support of Senator Obama.”

If the Democratic nominee is unknown when Marylanders go to the polls on Feb. 12, it will trigger a flurry of warring campaign activities in the state, said St. Mary’s College political science professor Michael J.G. Cain. Franchot showed in his 2006 election victory that he has the ability to mount a strong get-out-the-vote effort that could pay off again this year

In the end, Cain expects the party to reunite.

‘‘All you’re seeing is the existence of party cleavages over different candidates,” he said. ‘‘Come the summer or sooner if it’s clear who the nominee is, people will fall into line.”