This week's Mason-Dixon poll managed to achieve the impossible: it pleased both gubernatorial candidates.
Republican Ellen Sauerbrey (42 percentage points) sees it as a statistical dead heat with momentum on her side; Democrat Parris Glendening (48 percent) sees it as a steady lead that is fast approaching the magical 50 percent mark that assures victory.
In both cases, there are grounds for serious concern. On balance, though, the Glendening people have more to worry about.
Their traditional Democratic base in the suburbs is eroding in the face of voter discontent and Ms. Sauerbrey's alluring Pied Piper tune of lower taxes. It looks like a strong Republican year across the country and Mr. Glendening could be swept away if the tidal wave washes over Maryland.
Ms. Sauerbrey leads the Democrat in every jurisdiction except three. She leads among white voters, 52-37 percent. She leads among independents, 45-38. She leads among male voters, 46-43 percent. She's preaching an issue that voters like: lower taxes.
The fact that she is so close to Mr. Glendening while being outspent 3-1 in a state that is 2-1 Democratic tells you this is not an ordinary election year. The unexpected could well happen on election day.
Now comes the bad news for Ms. Sauerbrey. Some experts suspect she may have hit her high-water mark, that this is as close as she will get. Mr. Glendening's negative advertising will become incessant in the final two weeks of the campaign. As voters begin to see the holes in the Sauerbrey tax-cut plan their enthusiasm may turn to skepticism and then opposition. That's the hope, anyway, among the Glendening forces.
Also troubling for Ms. Sauerbrey is the low numbers she gets among women voters (38 percent to her opponent's 53 percent). Women are becoming a decisive factor in elections. They may be the ''stealth'' factor in this one.
Another deeply disturbing note is Ms. Sauerbrey's abysmal showing among black voters, where she loses by better than 10-1. Even if she wins the election, that lopsided margin could signal bitter racial tensions in Annapolis under a Governor Sauerbrey.
Turnout is the key to this election. Mr. Glendening needs a heavy stream of voters in Baltimore, Prince George's County and Montgomery County. He needs to win by large margins in these three subdivisions, which make up nearly half the state's voting population.
Mason Dixon gave him 70 percent in the city; 69 percent in Prince George's and 57 percent in Montgomery. But without a big turnout, he won't be able to overcome Ms. Sauerbrey's winning numbers in the rest of Maryland.
Compounding his problem is that there are no local races of consequence in either the city or in Prince George's. Somehow, Mr. Glendening has to excite black voters in these jursidictions and motivate them sufficiently to vote in large numbers. His fate could depend on this happening.
Ms. Sauerbrey need not worry about voter turnout. Her supporters will be at the polls, rain or shine. They are highly committed -- conservative true-believers; Rush Limbaugh listeners; Christian fundamentalists; NRA members; anti- abortion protesters and voters who are just plain angry at the world. (There are more of them than most polls indicate.)
The secret for the Republican nominee is to keep the public focused on her tax-cut promise. She's out of step with most voters on gun-control and the abortion issue. She's a Neanderthal as far as environmentalists are concerned. But none of that matters if this remains a one-issue campaign.
For Mr. Glendening, it's more complicated. Not only does he have to craft a massive get-out-the-vote strategy, he's got to find a way to win back some of the traditional Democratic voters now leaning in Ms. Sauerbrey's direction. He's failed so far to clearly define his own persona for the public. He seems to be all things to all people. He also has failed to discredit the Sauerbrey tax-cut plan in terms the public can understand.
This election is far from over. It is the most closely contested gubernatorial campaign in this state in 28 years. In 1966, the issue was racial integration in housing (''liberal'' Spiro T. Agnew against conservative George P. Mahoney and his theme, ''Your home is your castle -- protect it!'').
This time, the issue is Reaganomics (cut taxes, cut spending and good times will reappear). Will Marylanders vote to take the plunge -- despite the failure of Ronald Reagan's economic theories in Washington? Are people so frustrated that they will opt for a radical change without knowing the consequences?
The Pied Piper continues to toot her horn, sending out a mesmerizing message.
People want to believe. But is the message too good to be true?
Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column appears here each Sunday.