Maryland's campaign for governor enters its final four weeks with polls showing the race to be a nail-biter and the campaigns seeking to spark interest among the state's disgruntled but crucial undecided voters.
For the candidates, that means it's time to sharpen the attacks. Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend will pound away at her message that her opponent is too conservative for Maryland. Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will emphasize his contention that he is a more qualified leader who can break up the state's one-party rule.
And for voters, the last month means that television sets, mailboxes and telephones are soon to be bombarded with advertisements, mailings and recorded calls to a greater extent perhaps than ever before seen in the state. Marylanders might even see another gubernatorial debate, though none is scheduled.
"Independent voters are more susceptible to television appeals," says Douglas Harris, a political science professor at Loyola College. "We're going to see more ads and tougher attacks as we get closer and closer to the election."
Within just the past few days, the pace of advertising and attacks has picked up, with both Ehrlich and Townsend launching new salvos against each other's records. And spokesmen for both campaigns say things will only move more quickly.
"The closer you get to Election Day, the more important everything is," says Townsend spokesman Peter Hamm. "It's kind of like the fourth quarter of a football game. The difference between a political campaign and a football game is that in a political campaign, for all intents and purposes, it's always tied going into the fourth quarter."
In the case of this year's gubernatorial election, the game does appear to be tied. The Maryland Poll - released last week by The Sun and The Gazette newspapers - found that Townsend holds a 2 percentage point edge over Ehrlich among likely voters, well within the margin of error.
The results from the poll conducted by Potomac Survey Research also offer a guide to the strategies both campaigns are likely to employ during the last month of the campaign.
For Townsend, the focus will be on maximizing turnout in Maryland's three most heavily Democratic jurisdictions - Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. She'll spend the majority of her time rallying voters in those three areas, though Townsend campaign officials say she will continue making occasional trips to the more traditionally Republican areas such as the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.
Polls show the lieutenant governor has commanding leads in the city and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which are the same three jurisdictions that twice carried Gov. Parris N. Glendening to victory, and she is expecting help from such prominent Democrats as former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"The Democrats really have to make sure they have a ground operation in place for Election Day, because there are enough votes in the Democratic Party that if she can get them out, she can't lose," says Theodore G. Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive and one-time candidate for governor. "They need to be sure they're hauling out everybody they can to vote; use stretchers, if need be."
By contrast, while Ehrlich won't seek to depress voter turnout, he certainly won't try to encourage it in urban areas of the state. Ehrlich's suburban and rural supporters traditionally come out to the polls without much need for a GOP turn-out-the-vote effort.
"If you just have frequent voters and a smaller turnout, that seems to help Ehrlich," says Keith Haller, president of the Bethesda-based firm that conducted The Sun poll. "A larger turnout plays to Townsend's strength."
Ehrlich and Townsend already have smashed the state's fund-raising records - both exceeding the $6 million or so each spent by Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in 1998 - and they'll have enough cash on hand to buy as many television ads as they need between now and Nov. 5. Many of those ads are expected to be adversarial.
"Repetition, repetition, repetition," says Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "The `N' percent of their campaign funds spent on comparative advertising, which many people see as negative, is just going to spike up their negatives. By Election Day, these are both very flawed vessels we must choose between."
For Ehrlich, the theme has been to portray himself as a strong leader and someone who will bring change to Annapolis. His campaign is trying to tie Townsend to Glendening's record and the state's $1.7 billion projected budget shortfall.
"She represents the third term of the Glendening-Townsend administration," says Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "That's our message to the voters. She represents the status quo, more of the same - the budget deficit, a failed criminal and juvenile justice system, more traffic jams."