Is The State Big Enough For The Two Of Them?

They are the leading lights of their parties: young, ambitious politicians with wider goals. And although it is still early, both likely are preparing for a matchup in 2006.

March 09, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

As Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation learns to negotiate the shoals of Annapolis, and Baltimore's Democratic mayor learns how important it is to plow side streets, the maneuvering is already under way for a highly anticipated match-up in the governor's race of 2006.

It might seem early to start talking about it, but don't think the prospect of a gubernatorial race between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has not crossed the minds of those two politicians, even if the date is still three years away.

"If they're not thinking about it, they ought to be," says Carol Arscott, a political pollster who has been active in Republican circles.

Ehrlich and O'Malley have both become more than blips on the national political radar screen - a young, energetic Republican, projecting a pragmatic conservatism, who won in a heavily Democratic state; and a young, energetic Democrat, projecting a pragmatic liberalism, who becomes the white mayor of a predominantly black city.

But before either can make the move to national contests, they will probably have to see who is the state champion.

"I'd love to see it," says Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, of an O'Malley-Ehrlich race in 2006. "I'd love to see that battle, between the two rising stars of their respective parties. ... It would be the perfect match-up on so many levels. It would be like Ali and Frazier."

There are, of course, a few obstacles in the way. O'Malley has to be re-elected mayor, for one thing. There is also a Senate race in 2004 that could attract O'Malley, though there is no indication that Barbara Mikulski, the Democratic incumbent, plans to give up that seat, or that a challenge to her would be successful. And there are several other Democrats who will certainly be thinking about taking on Ehrlich in 2006 - Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan being the prime contender. But O'Malley will likely be a front runner for the Democratic nomination.

So the thinking is that 2006 will bring Maryland the race that almost happened last year until O'Malley reluctantly bowed out in deference to the party's designated candidate, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was considered a rising national star in a race considered hers to lose - which she did.

"You can barely open up a newspaper or magazine without reading about Democrats saying Martin O'Malley is their rising star," says Arscott. "So where were you people last year? Trying to keep him out of the governor's race, clearing the field for [Townsend], which turned out to be a disaster. O'Malley would have been a better candidate and probably beaten Ehrlich."

Schaller says he "still doesn't understand why O'Malley didn't run last time. But it does mean now he can epitomize the `See-I-told-you-so' lesson. He gets to look above the fray in the party."

The maneuvering between Ehrlich and O'Malley in these early days will be subtle, but it will be there.

"I don't think we're into the cobra-and-mongoose phase yet," says Herbert Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster. "There has to be some level of feigned civility."

Schaller agrees. "They are not going to start chumming around, but they are certainly not spoiling for a fight right away," he says.

That can be seen in the muted response from the normally combative O'Malley over the departure of his hand-picked city police commissioner Edward Norris to become Ehrlich's head of state police.

The most heat has been generated over the city's estimate of $65 million in road improvements needed to get the roads around Pimlico race track ready for slot machines, way above the estimates of other jurisdictions. But even in that confrontation, both seemed to avoid a one-on-one argument. "We don't buy into the $65 million," Ehrlich said. "Did he read the report?" asked O'Malley in response. "I'd be curious to hear from him exactly which of the numbers he questions."

"Neither of these guys is interested in directly confronting the other, not right away," says Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University.

Crenson says that O'Malley is somewhat paradoxically aided by the reduction in city representation in the General Assembly, particularly in leadership positions. This means that the Democrats fighting slots and other Ehrlich proposals are from other parts of the state, so if Ehrlich has problems, the city - and O'Malley - can't get the blame.

"That takes a lot of the heat out of the relationship between Ehrlich and O'Malley," Crenson says. "O'Malley will obviously be finding venues to showcase himself that don't place him in direct competition with Ehrlich. ... He's trying to stay in the spotlight without challenging Ehrlich, not taking on anything that would hurt Baltimore."

By the same token, it makes sense politically for Ehrlich to treat Baltimore well in part so that O'Malley cannot blame the city's problems on the governor.

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