Tough race brewing for Ehrlich, survey shows

October 29, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Political junkies peeking past Tuesday's presidential contest will see another contentious race brewing: Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. faces shaky re-election prospects and would lose to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, 51 percent to 44 percent, if the gubernatorial election were held today, a poll for The Sun shows.

Voted into office two years ago as Maryland's first Republican chief executive in more than three decades, the energetic and media-friendly Ehrlich remains popular with registered voters. Fifty-nine percent say they approve of the job he is doing in office, while 38 percent disapprove, the poll shows.

Nonetheless, Maryland's heavily Democratic voter registration base and the strength of ambitious contenders from across the aisle conspire against the 46-year- old incumbent, according to the telephone survey of 602 registered voters conducted this week by the Washington office of Ipsos-Public Affairs.

Three-term Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, another potential Democratic candidate who is not widely known beyond the Washington suburbs, would also give Ehrlich a tough race two years from now. The poll showed that Ehrlich would defeat Duncan 49 percent to 45 percent, but the gap falls within the survey's 4 percentage point margin of error, meaning it can be regarded as a statistical tie.

In a Democratic primary, O'Malley would best Duncan, 52 percent to 36 percent.

Ehrlich said in an interview yesterday that he is braced for a bruising campaign and hopeful that the four-year record he will have compiled by 2006 will convince voters to keep him in office.

"Obviously, it will be a strong Democrat, whether it's Duncan or O'Malley or someone else," Ehrlich said. "A lot of people are angry that they lost the governorship. They never thought it would occur. They got very acclimated to the patronage, the perks, the benefits - basically controlling the agenda in Annapolis. They no longer do. And that is frustrating for some."

Leading Democrats say they are thrilled to have at least two competitive candidates positioned for the job. The 2002 nominee, former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was widely regarded as a weak leader who ran a poor campaign and was dragged down by the personal peccadilloes of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

With registered Republicans outnumbered in Maryland by nearly 2-1, an experienced Democrat should win statewide office "assuming the Democrat is moderate and can hold on to blue-collar voters in Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, one of the state's sharpest political strategists.

"Either one of those guys can do that," Miller said of O'Malley and Duncan. "They are both wonderful candidates. They are both Irish. They both enjoy politics. They both like campaigning. They both have a record of accomplishment."

Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agreed that the automatic advantages enjoyed by Democrats in Maryland harm Ehrlich. "Given a good Democratic candidate, even against a good Republican candidate, the good Democrat should win every time," he said.

While Ehrlich is the strongest politician the state Republican Party has produced in years, he has not yet cemented a record in office that guarantees re-election, Norris said.

"Right now, the governor doesn't have much of a record to run on, in terms of his legislative achievements," Norris said. "His principle legislative attempt in both sessions has been slots, and he hasn't gotten that done."

A continued focus on fixing Maryland's fiscal problems without raising taxes, solving a medical malpractice crisis and another push to save the horse-racing industry with slot machines will be his priorities during the next two years, Ehrlich said yesterday.

"Ultimately, in a year and a half, after four [Assembly] sessions, the record will be the record," the governor said. "And the election is going to be about Ehrlich: What commitments did he make? Did he fulfill the commitments? If not, why?"

Neither Duncan nor O'Malley has declared that he is running for governor, and both are taking pains to avoid looking crassly ambitious, even as they raise money and build alliances.

"I'm the mayor, I'm running for mayor, and with the people's help, together we will continue to make nation-leading progress," said O'Malley, 41, who faces re-election Tuesday.

"I do think, generally, the poll confirms what my gut has been telling me, which is that Maryland remains a very progressive state," he said. "The poll confirms that Marylanders are not desirous of taking a hard-right turn, that we are a progressive people."

The survey showed that O'Malley is viewed favorably by 47 percent of registered voters and unfavorably by 18 percent. Nearly 3 in 10 respondents said they had not heard of him.

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