Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley told allies yesterday to prepare for a "major announcement" next Wednesday, setting the stage for a formal declaration in the race for governor that would launch an already combative election season into its next stage.
The mayor placed more than 100 close supporters on alert during a conference call last night.
"Next Wednesday, Martin O'Malley will be making a major announcement with regards to Maryland's future, as well as his own future campaign plans," said O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein, who stopped short of saying the speech will be the campaign kickoff. Still, several political figures close to the mayor and other observers say an announcement is a near-certainty.
Unless another contender leapfrogs ahead, O'Malley is poised to become the first declared entrant in the 2006 governor's race - shaping up as a punishing marathon with a contested Democratic primary next September followed by a November general election that most political observers predict will be close.
O'Malley is expected to face Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, an experienced government manager who represents the state's most populous jurisdiction, in a primary.
The winner would almost certainly run against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who in 2002 became the state's first Republican governor since Spiro T. Agnew was elected in 1966, and the first to garner a majority of the popular vote since Theodore R. McKeldin in 1950.
Ehrlich has not definitively said he is seeking re-election, but he is aggressively raising money and preparing campaign themes.
O'Malley has long sounded like a candidate for governor, delivering campaign speeches on the environment and saying he was laying the groundwork for a run. Still, his formal announcement would come far earlier than those in previous elections. In 2002, Ehrlich and then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend delivered kickoff speeches less than six months before the primary.
But this year is different, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a supporter of Democratic causes.
Democratic leaders, he said, want to reclaim the governor's mansion, and "fiddling around until the spring of 2006 doesn't make much sense when everybody knows you are running."
The mayor has had double-digit leads on Duncan in almost all polls, and an April survey for The Sun had him beating Ehrlich 45 percent to 39 percent, with 16 percent undecided.
Duncan's campaign manager, Scott Arceneaux, said yesterday the county executive will likely declare his candidacy later in the fall. "We are committed to running a campaign on our timeline, not on anyone else's," Arceneaux said.
Ehrlich entered the 2002 governor's race in large part because O'Malley did not, although the mayor flirted with a bid. Supporters of the governor say he now has accomplishments that warrant re-election.
"We're quite confident that the record that Governor Ehrlich and Lieutenant Governor Steele have on behalf of the people of Maryland are going to be hard steps to follow in for any candidate," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.
Of 38 states with governor's races in 2005 and 2006, Maryland is one of nine listed as "toss-ups" by The Cook Political Report, an independent campaign tracking outfit, meaning analysts believe "either party has a good chance of winning." Just two of the nine have incumbents eligible to run for re-election, making Ehrlich one of the most vulnerable governors in the nation, according to the report's firstname.lastname@example.org