City's suburbs seen as key for O'Malley

Baltimore County is linchpin, many say


Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley headed to Frederick yesterday for the first in a series of trips to bring his now-official candidacy for governor to every corner of Maryland. But the support he really needs is much closer to home.

Democratic leaders and O'Malley supporters say much of the mayor's strength as a gubernatorial contender lies in the votes he could attract in the suburbs that ring Baltimore, namely Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. trounced Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in those counties in 2002, and they are considered key to next year's contest.

Many Democratic leaders view Baltimore County as the linchpin of the 2006 race.

Ehrlich represented parts of the county in the General Assembly and in Congress for 16 years. The Arbutus native carried the county 62 percent to 38 percent in 2002, getting 64,725 votes more than Townsend, a Ruxton resident.

That was nearly equal to his statewide advantage of 66,170 votes, which means Ehrlich's margin of victory came mostly from his home territory of Baltimore County.

If a Democrat runs better than Townsend did in Baltimore County, getting, say, half of the county's votes, the party could win back the governorship that it lost in 2002 for the first time since 1966, party leaders and political experts say.

"The battleground is Baltimore County and, to a lesser extent, Howard," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster. "If O'Malley does run even with Ehrlich in Baltimore County, and poll results show that that is well within the realm of feasibility, it could be a rout."

Because of his record in the city and the extensive media coverage he receives daily, O'Malley is nearly universally known in the metropolitan area and receives high marks from many likely voters.

That's the same recipe that propelled former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell to the governorship of Pennsylvania in 2002, a rare example of a big-city mayor winning higher office and one that is foremost in the minds of O'Malley campaign staffers.

O'Malley "is a true leader," said Democratic U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a former Baltimore County executive whose early endorsement of O'Malley is significant because he appeals to the conservative Democrats whom the mayor wants to reclaim from Ehrlich.

"I see a lot of big-city mayors, and I think he's the best I've seen," Ruppersberger said.

Republicans agree that Baltimore County and nearby areas are critical to the election. But Ehrlich remains popular there, they say, and is well-positioned for re-election.

Del. William J. Frank, a Republican from Lutherville, said O'Malley "has mixed reviews" in Frank's district.

"He's got a tough job, but there hasn't been a great deal of progress in the city," Frank said. "The governor has to win Baltimore County, no questions about it. He's doing very well in the Jewish community. He's doing well on the east side."

O'Malley is untested outside Baltimore, and the swing suburban counties where he needs votes are "more and more receptive to the Republican message, and are rejecting the liberal philosophy that has pervaded the state for the past 40 years," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.

In the latest polling for The Sun, Ehrlich led O'Malley 46 percent to 40 percent in Baltimore County, with 14 percent undecided. The governor led O'Malley 50 percent to 40 percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

In 2002, Ehrlich carried Anne Arundel by a 65 percent to 35 percent margin and Howard by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin.

"Four years ago, we lost because of the margin in Baltimore County," O'Malley said yesterday before embarking on his statewide tour, which will include stops in Easton, Hagerstown and Calvert County through Monday.

"So Baltimore County is a critical county, especially for the general election, while Prince George's is a very critical county for the primary."

The mayor said he has been working on building support outside the city.

"We have enjoyed a lot of strong support out of Baltimore County ... and there are a lot of elected officials throughout Baltimore County who are excited about the potential this candidacy has for bringing Democrats back to forward-looking leadership," he said.

While Baltimore has lost hundreds of thousands of residents over the past few decades, the city's suburbs continue to gain population and political weight.

Voters there are often more willing to cross party lines in general elections, depending on the candidates and the races, making them important competitive areas.

State Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who is running for Congress in the 3rd District, predicted a fierce competition for votes.

"A lot of the support that was there for the governor three years ago is still there," Hollinger said. A better indicator, she said, is the most recent presidential election.

"It's more important to look at John Kerry's vote in Baltimore County," Hollinger said. Kerry beat President Bush 52 percent to 48 percent there. "People are angry about what is happening in Washington. They are angry about the war," Hollinger said.

In Howard County, Kerry defeated Bush 55 percent to 45 percent. Bush carried Anne Arundel by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin.

O'Malley backers have been quietly spreading the message that the mayor deserves support in the primary over Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is expected to be a candidate, because O'Malley, with his strength in the Baltimore region, is better positioned to beat Ehrlich.

Not everyone is convinced. Pollster Patrick Gonzales said that if Duncan wins the primary, he will emerge with enough momentum to energize Democrats statewide.

"I don't buy the argument that Martin O'Malley is the only Democrat that could run competitively in the Baltimore region," Gonzales said.

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