Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan abandoned his exploration of a race for governor yesterday, saying he will instead seek re-election in 2002 as manager of Maryland's most populous county.
Duncan's decision removes a sizable hurdle from the path of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democrat who leads in early polls for governor.
"One by one, the potential challengers to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have chosen other options," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.
"It looks like the obstacles that stood between Townsend and the Democratic nomination have diminished significantly, and maybe disappeared."
In a statement, Duncan said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and their aftermath influenced his decision to seek a third term.
With its many federal facilities and residents who could be at risk from biological assaults such as anthrax, Montgomery County is near the front lines of the ever-expanding threat. Duncan has been spending much of his time in the past several weeks, aides say, dealing with the crises.
"We are working together with the other governments in the region and with the federal government to be prepared for the new realities of living in the Washington metropolitan area," Duncan said in the statement.
"This is a full-time job, and the most important thing I can do right now is service to the people of Montgomery County."
Considered a rising Democratic star, Duncan, 46, is not only a proven vote-getter in the state's largest county but also has the hands-on management experience some think Townsend lacks.
Many observers had hoped that Duncan would partner with another regional player - perhaps Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, or Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry - to unify opposition to the lieutenant governor.
But Ruppersberger is increasingly talking about running for Congress. And Duncan has faced a growing deficit of support at home: Montgomery County Council President Blair Ewing could challenge Duncan for executive, and many county political figures have said they will back Townsend for governor.
"The fact that Doug didn't have the entire [legislative] delegation, or the entire council prepared to support him, I'm sure factored into a decision," said Montgomery County Council Vice President Steve Silverman. "You can't afford to have many defections in your home base."
Montgomery developer and political commentator Blair Lee IV said he was not surprised by Duncan's decision. The executive damaged his gubernatorial prospects, he said, by wavering about his interest in the office.
"Stupid Doug throws his hat in the ring a year ago. Then he says he'd accept being lieutenant governor, when it was never offered to him," Lee said. "You couldn't have played it worse."
If Townsend is to face a primary challenge, it is now most likely to come from O'Malley. Polls suggest the outspoken mayor is extremely popular after two years in office.
While some think he could beat Townsend, others fear a backlash if he is perceived as abandoning his city at the first opportunity.
O'Malley refuses to comment publicly about his possible interest in the governor's race. An aide said yesterday that the mayor had nothing to say about Duncan's announcement.
No decision from O'Malley is expected until after the 90-day General Assembly session ends in April; until then, observers say, O'Malley will use the threat of his candidacy to try to pry state money from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a staunch supporter of Townsend.
Likewise, the strongest Republican candidate, U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Timonium, is expected to delay a decision for at least several weeks.
If Ehrlich enters the race earlier, he risks seeing his congressional district decimated in the redistricting process. Glendening and other top Democrats would like a commitment from Ehrlich that he, too, would abandon the governor's race in exchange for a safe seat.
Some polls show O'Malley as the toughest challenger in a head-to-head match with Townsend. In a hypothetical, crowded Democratic field, Duncan and the other county executives struggled to break into double digits, while Townsend collected about half the vote, said pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Survey Research.
In addition to anemic poll numbers, Duncan also lagged in the quest for cash.
Fund-raising reports that are due at the state elections board next week are expected to show Duncan with about $1 million - perhaps $2 million or more behind what the lieutenant governor has available.
"Her support among core Democrats is very difficult to crack, and it would have required huge sums of money," Haller said.
Townsend was unavailable for comment yesterday, but her chief of staff, Alan H. Fleischmann, said, "We welcome the news."
"Doug has been a very effective county executive and a real leader," Fleischmann said, adding that Duncan and Townsend "enjoy a very positive, constructive and professional relationship."