Voters of 2 major parties optimistic about Ehrlich

Views: Respondents to a survey for The Sun are confident in the GOP's ability to solve problems.

The Maryland Poll

January 09, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Despite an ominous state budget outlook, Marylanders of the two major parties are optimistic about the prospects of Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and increasingly confident in Republicans' ability to solve major state problems, says a new poll for The Sun released today.

At the same time, voters have grown even more disillusioned with outgoing Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Ehrlich, who will be sworn in Wednesday as the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, won Nov. 5 with 51.5 percent of the vote.

While some Democratic politicians questioned whether his thin victory margin would hamper his ability to govern, a significant proportion of voters - 56 percent - believe that the former Baltimore County congressman is up to the task, the Maryland Poll found. By comparison, 45 percent of Maryland voters expressed faith in Republican George W. Bush at the outset of his presidency two years ago.

Only one Maryland politician - Mayor Martin O'Malley - eclipsed Ehrlich in the poll's popularity ratings.

Fifty-seven percent of state voters view O'Malley favorably, compared with 7 percent who don't. The poll found that O'Malley, who weighed a gubernatorial bid last year and is likely to consider a 2006 run, was recognized by nearly two-thirds of voters, although the figure dips to less than half in the politically significant Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"Those numbers are a reflection of progress we've made in a relatively short time," said O'Malley, who fared particularly well among poll respondents for whom fighting crime was the top priority. "I'm the front man for a lot of other peoples' accomplishments."

Ehrlich's net positive rating was only slightly below the mayor's, though Ehrlich was more widely recognized. Sixty-five percent approve of the governor-elect, while 18 percent view him unfavorably.

`Clinton charisma'

Since he has yet to sign a bill or submit a budget, Ehrlich seems to have won over many voters with charm. That's despite poll results published yesterday by The Sun that found a majority of voters believe the state's budget woes are so formidable he'll be forced to go back on his campaign pledge not to raise taxes.

"He has a lot of Clinton charisma," says Brenda Green, a Democratic former public school administrator and college professor from Baltimore. But Green, who didn't vote for Ehrlich, says she's disappointed he announced plans to drop the moratorium on capital punishment before reviewing a study released this week on the death penalty in Maryland.

Still, Green is withholding judgment on Ehrlich until he has an opportunity to become acclimated to the governor's office. "I've got a wait-and-see attitude," she says.

Forecast: `Good job'

As he begins to tackle a projected $1.2 billion state budget gap, the poll shows that Ehrlich has the confidence of not only his own party but Democrats as well. Forty-seven percent of Democrats believe that he will do a "good job," while 28 percent forecast a poor performance.

"They seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, which conducted the survey for The Sun. By 41 percent to 39 percent, Marylanders said Republicans are better able than Democrats to handle the state's problems - though six in 10 voters are registered Democrats.

The telephone poll of 1,200 voters was conducted Dec. 30 through Saturday, and it has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

The early popular support could provide needed political capital for Ehrlich, who is lobbying for his plan to legalize slot machines at state racetracks. Voters who favor slots and who want taxes cut are more likely than the rest to express optimism in the governor-elect, according to the poll.

But it's uncertain how long his honeymoon will last.

"It's a love fest now," said Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat. "Everybody is happy and excited. There's a lot of work to be done, but it's not on the table yet. So far, [Ehrlich] has said all the right things about not cutting aid to county government."

Said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski: "My advice to him is to govern from the center and build bipartisan relationships."

Ehrlich might owe at least a portion of his popularity to Glendening. After eight years, voters are so disenchanted with Glendening that they appear eager to embrace a new occupant in the governor's mansion.

During the past two years, Glendening's approval rating has plummeted from nearly 2-to-1 positive to almost 2-to-1 negative. Members of his own party give him a negative rating - 51 percent disapproval to 38 percent approval.

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