At the midpoint of his term, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is deadlocked with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in a potential match-up for governor in 2006, and nearly four in 10 registered voters say they are likely to vote against the incumbent regardless of his opposition, according to a Sun poll released today.
Democrat O'Malley and Republican Ehrlich each had the support of 40 percent of respondents in a telephone survey of 800 likely voters conducted last week by Potomac Inc. of Bethesda. Twenty percent were undecided.
In another scenario, Ehrlich would beat Democratic Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, 44 to 31 percent, with 25 percent undecided.
Poll results show that a solid majority of voters - 54 percent - approve of the way the governor is handling his job, 31 percent disapprove and 15 percent aren't sure. Those figures have changed little over the past year.
"Ehrlich's negatives have stayed at a manageable level. He seems to be getting the benefit of the doubt among many voters," said pollster Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. "We see a personal popularity about Ehrlich, a likability factor, but people are still keeping an open mind."
The relatively high job approval rating has not solidified the governor's re-election chances, however.
Thirty-six percent of poll respondents said Ehrlich deserves to be re-elected; 38 percent said they would vote for someone else. Twenty-six percent said they weren't sure, or would not be voting.
"When an incumbent is below 50 percent, he or she needs to be concerned," Haller said.
House of Delegates Minority Whip Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Republican from Calvert County, said the "re-elect" number is no cause for worry.
"People don't like to commit two years away from an election," O'Donnell said. "People aren't thinking about it."
But for Democrats who are hoping to reclaim a State House they lost for the first time in nearly four decades, the figures look tantalizing.
"It's just a snapshot, but it is a bad snapshot for the governor," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who is emerging as a leading voice of the party's liberal wing. "It's the first number I've seen that makes sense of the disconnect between people saying he seems like a nice person, but when polled on issues find him outside the mainstream of Maryland."
The governor's support has slipped over the past year. Last January, 40 percent of voters said they would re-elect Ehrlich, with 36 percent supporting someone else.
The poll indicates that the populous suburban counties around Baltimore City will once again decide the race for governor, with Baltimore County standing out as a bellwether.
In 2002, Ehrlich carried his home county of Baltimore - which has the third-highest number of registered voters in the state - by 61 percent to 38 percent over Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
O'Malley stands to fare much better if he wins the Democratic nomination. Ehrlich would win over the mayor in Baltimore County by 45 percent to 42 percent if the election were held today, the poll showed, a lead that is within the survey's 3.5 percentage point margin of error.
"Any Democrat within striking distance in Baltimore County is likely to win statewide," said Josh White, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
Ehrlich leads O'Malley among male voters (46 percent to 34 percent) and among whites (46 percent to 36 percent). O'Malley outpolls the governor with women (45 percent to 34 percent), but one in five Democrats said they would vote for Ehrlich.
A spokesman for the mayor, Stephen Kearney, said the numbers are "consistent with what the mayor has been hearing from all over Maryland. People appreciate how hard he is working, turning things around in Baltimore."
Duncan scores well in his home territory of Montgomery County, as well as in neighboring Prince George's County, but is not well known in other areas of the state. Only 43 percent of Democrats said they are ready to vote for Duncan over Ehrlich.
"Duncan's profile is just not as high statewide," said Steven R. Raabe, director of research for Potomac Inc. "Democrats just aren't willing to come home yet to Duncan as they are with O'Malley."
David Weaver, a spokesman for Duncan, said the county executive's name recognition remains below O'Malley's, which explains the difference in how the two candidates fare against Ehrlich. Once candidates formally enter the race and media attention reaches its peak, the numbers will change, he said.
"The poll makes one thing very clear: Governor Ehrlich is extremely vulnerable," Weaver said. "People seem to like the guy, but they don't trust him to solve the budget mess or believe he can get things done, because he's not getting things done."
Steve Abrams, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, said the findings reflect the 2-1 voter registration edge that Democrats enjoy in Maryland.