In the aftermath of a confrontational General Assembly session, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gets poor marks from Maryland voters on working with legislators and protecting the environment, and has slipped behind Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in a potential 2006 contest for governor, according to The Sun Poll released today.
The survey results show a downward shift in the governor's job approval rating since January, the last time Potomac Inc. questioned likely voters on state politics and issues. The three-month period was dominated by news of an aide to the governor spreading Internet rumors about O'Malley, and an Assembly decision to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year giving the legislature veto power over the sale of certain state land. Still, more than half of potential voters say they like the job the governor is doing and tend to hold a favorable personal view of him.
Voters overwhelmingly say Ehrlich does a good job communicating his priorities to them, although in general they disapprove of the way he has handled key issues facing the state.
Democrat O'Malley leads Republican Ehrlich 45 percent to 39 percent in a potential gubernatorial general election next year, with about one in six likely voters undecided. In January, the governor and mayor were deadlocked, each getting the support of 40 percent of respondents, with 20 percent undecided.
Ehrlich would defeat the other top Democratic contender for governor, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, 44 percent to 38 percent, in a general election pairing, the survey showed. Eighteen percent were undecided.
The survey of 1,000 likely voters, conducted by telephone Monday through Wednesday, has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.
`Message on the road'
Shareese N. DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Ehrlich, predicted the governor's dip in popularity was temporary and said he would be buoyed by visiting voters across the state.
"As far as the governor's numbers, following the session the governor will do what the governor has done after previous sessions and what he does best: take his message on the road," DeLeaver said.
But O'Malley supporters say the shift toward their candidate reflects failings in the governor's leadership. For the third consecutive year, Ehrlich's priority - the legalization of slot machines - died in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. Even some of the governor's seemingly unassailable ideas, such as providing a tax break to veterans, were buzz-sawed by uncooperative lawmakers.
In a primary for governor, O'Malley would beat Duncan, 45 percent to 25 percent, with 29 percent undecided, the poll results showed. In January, O'Malley was up 50 percent to 27 percent over Duncan, with 23 percent undecided.
"The findings here make sense, given that people see Martin O'Malley as someone who continues to get things done, in stark contrast to the governor," said Jonathan Epstein, the manager of O'Malley's as-yet unofficial State House campaign.
The poll reveals that nearly eight in 10 voters were aware of recent revelations that an aide to Ehrlich, Joseph F. Steffen Jr., was forced to resign for spreading rumors on the Internet about O'Malley.
More voters thought Steffen was acting on his own - 50 percent - than the three in 10 who thought his behavior was part of a broader pattern within the Ehrlich administration.
"Joe Steffen is not hurting Bob Ehrlich. Bob Ehrlich is hurting Bob Ehrlich," said Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor and a supporter of Democrats.
Ehrlich's attempts to shift blame for his shortcomings to the Assembly is "wearing thin," Schaller said. "People vote based on ability to lead, not on ability to complain," he said.
But Republican consultant Carol L. Hirschburg said the governor is a victim of incessant attacks by Democratic legislative leaders who are increasingly upset that they have lost the governor's mansion for the first time since the 1960s.
"Any slide in his favorablity is due to the success of the Democrats to get the media to carry their message," Hirschburg said.
Asked about specific tasks that a governor might accomplish, voters viewed Ehrlich in a negative light. One in three said he did an excellent or good job working with the legislature, while six in 10 said he did an only fair or poor job. Fifty-five percent of voters said he was doing fair or poor on protecting the Chesapeake Bay and the environment, while 35 percent said he was excellent or good in that area.
The governor's numbers grew worse in all those areas since the January start of the session.
"In the public's eye, he is not performing vis-a-vis the legislature the way the public would like to see," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the survey company. "He might as well declare war now and forget the legislature if he is going to seek re-election."