As more and more Marylanders make up their minds in the gubernatorial race, Gov. Parris N. Glendening remains locked in a statistical dead heat with Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a new poll shows.
Glendening holds a slender 47 percent to 45 percent edge over Sauerbrey, a figure that falls within the poll's margin of error. Eight percent of the sample was undecided, according to the survey of likely voters done for The Sun and three other news organizations.
The poll, coming less than four weeks before the Nov. 3 election, found that more than two-thirds of the voters have firmly settled on a candidate. That's a substantial increase since a poll early last month, when only about half of voters had committed to one or the other.
In the remaining weeks, both candidates will be working to win over the undecided, to consolidate their base support and to get their voters to the polls on Election Day.
"Either candidate can win this," said Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the poll. "Every single last vote will count." He said the Maryland contest appears to be the tightest race for governor in the nation.
There was mixed news for each candidate in the poll, which was taken over five days last week.
Glendening, for example, appears to be cementing his hold on traditional Democratic constituencies -- particularly African-Americans and the elderly.
Despite Sauerbrey's call for an income tax cut for retirees, Glendening's lead among voters over age 65 has grown in the past month. Forty-nine percent of those voters support Glendening, while 38 percent favor Sauerbrey.
The governor is also favored by 70 percent of black voters surveyed, compared to 10 percent for Sauerbrey. In the previous poll, Sauerbrey's support among African-Americans had reached 19 percent.
Among Glendening's African-American supporters is Annie M. Lawrence, a 50-year-old Northwest Baltimore resident who said she could never pull the lever for a Republican.
In addition, Sauerbrey has rubbed her the wrong way. "I think he did a good job, and I just don't like her," said Lawrence, who was among poll respondents who agreed to be interviewed later by a reporter.
The poll found that Glendening maintains leads in the three jurisdictions that he carried in the 1994 election -- Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
But the poll found that Glendening's job approval rating statewide has slipped in recent weeks. In September, 53 percent of those polled approved of his job performance as governor. That number dropped to 49 percent in the new poll.
Frank A. Lipsitz, a retired postal worker from Southwest Baltimore and a self-described liberal, said he will vote for Glendening but with little enthusiasm.
"I'm not thrilled with him," Lipsitz said. "I don't think he can be trusted. But I think he's the lesser of the two evils."
Meanwhile, Sauerbrey, who built her 1994 race against Glendening on the issue of cutting the state income tax, appears to have expanded her appeal.
Explaining why they will vote for her, Sauerbrey's backers rank her position on education equally with her tax-cutting plan, a reflection perhaps of her highly regarded television ads touting her plans for improving public schools.
Haller said Sauerbrey was well-positioned heading into the final weeks.
Voters who are just forming an opinion of her seem to like what they are learning. During the past three months, the number of voters who have a favorable impression of her climbed from 45 percent to 53 percent, while her unfavorable rating went from 30 percent to 34 percent.
"People who didn't know her in July generally have a good impression now," Haller said.
It is the tax issue that resonates with respondents such as Gail E. Redtman, a secretary from Essex, who said Sauerbrey has a better feel for the needs of working people and the middle class, particularly in areas such as Highlandtown, where Redtman once lived.
"There are a lot of people there who aren't that well off," said Redtman, 51, a registered Republican. "She's working to cut taxes for older people. I just have a feeling that Mrs. Sauerbrey will be more in touch with how they have to live."
A healthy majority of voters, 57 percent, disagree that Sauerbrey is "too conservative" for a state like Maryland -- a reflection perhaps of her persistent effort to soft-peddle her traditionally conservative views on issues such as abortion, gun control and the environment.
'Two very different visions'
"This is a watershed election in Maryland that offers a clear choice between two very different visions for Maryland's future," said Peter S. Hamm, Glendening's campaign spokesman. "The stakes are very high. Everyone needs to get out and vote on November 3."
Jim Dornan, a Sauerbrey spokesman, called the poll "just a snapshot."