Gov. William Donald Schaefer's lead over his Republican challenger, William S. Shepard, has fallen from better than 3-to-1 to just under 2-to-1, according to a poll conducted last week by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Co. of Columbia.
The incumbent Democrat holds a 59 percent to 30 percent advantage, the survey showed. That would place Mr. Shepard's standing 12 points higher than it was in The Sun Poll published Oct. 15, and Mr. Schaefer's down by 10 points.
The Mason-Dixon survey was conducted for WMAR-TV (Channel 2) in Baltimore and Maryland newspapers including the Annapolis Capital and the Montgomery Journal newspapers.
In September, a Mason-Dixon survey had Mr. Schaefer leading by 65 percent to 19 percent. In the previous samplings, the governor's historically solid approval rating appeared to be holding up well -- particularly in a year when anti-incumbency was said to be driving the American voter's Election Day decisions.
The shift indicated in the Mason-Dixon poll toward Mr. Shepard created jubilation in the GOP contender's camp and brought predictions of a "photo finish."
"Voters are now focusing on the campaign. The more [they] think about Schaefer," Mr. Shepard said, "the more they realize that the state is headed in the wrong direction."
With no obvious public event or campaign development to explain the rather sudden fall, the governor's campaign manager, Jim Smith, tended to agree with his competitors that the slippage is occurring as voters begin to think about how they will vote Tuesday.
With voters targeting incumbents out of frustration over a range of complaints beginning with high taxes and moving on to the fear of recession or war in the Middle East, Mr. Smith said, Mr. Schaefer may find he is not immune.
Governors, he said, don't have much to do with going to war or broad economic forces, but they are likely to be held accountable nonetheless. The Shepard camp has been hammering Mr. Schaefer in recent weeks, blaming him for a deficit pegged at $322 million by General Assembly budget analysts. Mr. Smith rejected the rival camp's contention that Mr. Schaefer had anything to do with a downturn in the economy, which is responsible, Mr. Smith said, for the deficit.
Turning again to the poll results, he said the Schaefer campaign is "absolutely" concerned about the prospect of a low turnout in Baltimore and in Prince George's County, where the governor is strongest in the polls. He won the September primary in these jurisdictions by 8-to-1 or better. With the Schaefer-Shepard race generating little interest up to now and with few compelling local races in the city or in Prince George's, voters may elect to stay home Tuesday and could hold the governor's vote down.
Even so, Mr. Smith said, "If these numbers held up, the governor would be in the low 60s. We'd be pretty happy with that," Mr. Smith said.
Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon, said he believes Mr. Schaefer's slide is likely to bottom out at 56 percent -- if, indeed, it stays below 60 percent. The Shepard campaign -- with no advertising money to capitalize on the trend -- may gain momentum in the counties where tax-cap initiatives may draw the anti-incumbent vote.
Mr. Shepard's media adviser, Robb Austin, said the campaign assumes that it will get most of the undecided vote and that the trend will continue to move in Mr. Shepard's favor. Mr. Austin said the campaign -- which has raised about $100,000 in all -- is not in a position to nudge the trend with a concerted push on television or radio. Mr. Schaefer, with $2.3 million raised, has been appealing for votes on prime-time television for days and will continue to do so.
Mr. Austin said the Shepard team is content to get momentum from the voters.
"There is an obvious anti-incumbent mood. The poll says 83 percent of the respondents feel Schaefer should have debated us. When someone doesn't debate, voters ask 'Why not? What's he hiding?' They know Schaefer sidestepped the debate and they don't like it."