Republican attorney Dirk Haire is dropping out of the 2006 race for Anne Arundel county executive and endorsing Del. John R. Leopold for the job.
Haire - who garnered early attention with a blistering fund-raising pace - said a February poll showed that even if he ran an expensive and negative primary campaign, he would be neck and neck with Leopold.
He said Leopold started with an enormous advantage in name recognition that would be hard to overcome.
Haire, 37, an Annapolis resident who is legal counsel for the state Republican Party, said a brutal primary fight would take away from GOP efforts to recapture the county executive seat and win re-election for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"It was clear I was going to have to run a very hard-charging and negative campaign, and that wasn't something I was willing to do," he said yesterday. "I made the decision because I know it's what's best for the party."
Haire immediately endorsed Leopold, who was first elected to the state legislature in 1983. Haire said he would ask his donors to shift their fund-raising efforts to support his former opponent.
Leopold "is a diligent campaigner and an absolutely committed public servant," Haire said.
Leopold, 62, said he is thrilled to have Haire and his formidable fund-raising abilities on his side.
"I appreciate his confidence and his support, and I'm grateful for the talent, energy and enthusiasm he'll bring to the campaign," said Leopold, who represents Pasadena, Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park.
The third Republican in the race, Maryland commuter rail chief Phillip D. Bissett, is considering how to respond to a legal opinion on whether his campaign violates a law prohibiting political activity by government employees who oversee federal funds. Bissett, 48, plans to make an announcement about the future of his campaign Monday.
"I wish Mr. Haire and his family the very best," Bissett said in a statement.
With Haire out of the race and Bissett unsure of his plans, Leopold could emerge as an unchallenged front-runner in a race that was expected to be hotly contested for the next year.
"We've got to make sure we're not killing ourselves in a primary," said Erik Robey, vice chairman of the state party and a Pasadena resident. "The goal as Republicans is to field as strong a group of candidates as possible for all the offices. Sometimes, the word of the day is discipline."
Robey said the party did not encourage Haire to step aside, however.
"I think it was a personal decision," he said. "It's common, being this far out from the race, to get this type of stuff."
Robey said he wouldn't be surprised if more Republicans entered the primary race.
On the Democratic side, Sheriff George F. Johnson IV is the only candidate who has said he is likely to run for executive. Other Democrats who could run include county parks director and former Annapolis Mayor Dennis M. Callahan and Barbara D. Samorajczyk and Bill D. Burlison, County Council members who can't run for the council again under county rules.
Reacting to Haire's announcement, Johnson said, "I really can't worry about anyone on the Republican side. ... I would have my own Democratic primary to worry about."
Johnson said either party could benefit from narrowing its field early.
"It's always an advantage getting down to one, for money purposes alone," he said.
Haire announced in 2004 that he was considering a run and stunned county political observers by saying he would raise $1.5 million, about double the previous record for a county race.
Haire raised $178,697 between January 2004 and January 2005, according to state campaign finance records. He had $151,317 in cash on hand. He said he hasn't decided what to do with the money but that he could transfer it in $6,000 chunks to other candidates or create a "slate" with other candidates that would allow his campaign committee to share unlimited funds with their committees.
Leopold raised $65,660 between January 2004 and January 2005 and had $348,000 on hand, most of it money he lent to his campaign.
Haire said Leopold's ability to match his fund raising with personal expenditures helped convince him that the race would be uphill.
Haire said the poll he commissioned from Moore Information showed that of 300 likely voters in a GOP primary, 46 percent would vote for Leopold, 14 percent would vote for Bissett and 2 percent would vote for him. The remaining 38 percent of voters were undecided.
He said that once possible voters were given descriptions of the candidates that showed Haire in a favorable light and the others in less favorable lights, Leopold polled at 37 percent, Haire at 37 percent and Bissett at 13 percent. The remaining 13 percent were undecided.
Asked whether he was considering running for another office in 2006, Haire said, "I haven't had time to sit and reflect on what I'm going to do." Asked about a future run for county executive, he said his pulling out "all but forecloses" that possibility.
For now, he said, he will focus on his work as an attorney for the party and as a commercial construction lawyer.