Duncan concludes ground campaign

Trailing in the polls, the gubernatorial hopeful winds up a tour talking to voters in the 23 counties, Baltimore


Denton -- Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan stood for an hour yesterday as he chatted with Caroline County educators in a downtown school system office here. They stood, too, for that matter - though the room's large conference table surrounded with chairs beckoned.

As Duncan, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, concluded his 24-jurisdiction tour of the state yesterday, it was obvious he is not much interested in sitting down.

He has work to do as he gears up to launch his campaign this month, and a tough task ahead as he challenges Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who announced last week that he also is seeking the party's nomination.

Despite Duncan's apparent disadvantages - a double-digit deficit in early polls and O'Malley's charisma and dominance of the wide-reaching Baltimore media market - those who know him say Duncan will approach the gubernatorial contest much as he has his job: methodically, seriously and with no intention of yielding.

"I remember that everyone was certain Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg would become governor," said George Leventhal, a Duncan supporter who is serving his first term on the Montgomery County Council. "I remember that everyone was certain that Ellen Sauerbrey would beat Parris Glendening."

"I think the mayor has a pretty good story to tell," said Leventhal, a Democrat. "I think Doug has a better story."

Though there's a brewing buzz in Democratic circles that Duncan should consider bowing out of the race should he post disappointing fundraising totals early next year, some observers say Duncan can whittle away at O'Malley's poll numbers.

The first step, they say, is to do what he's doing: meeting party activists at the local level.

Duncan's expedition, which brought him to the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City and was dubbed the "Listening and Learning Tour," is to some degree a gimmick.

It gives Duncan the right to say in his coming announcement speech that he has talked to voters and officials in every county in Maryland. But it's also essential for Duncan, who, as a former Rockville mayor, has spent his political career in Montgomery County.

"What I see Duncan doing is going around the state shaking hands, doing what he can in all of the jurisdictions to get his name in front of Democratic voters, Democratic officials and trying to get his name recognition up, which is the main thing he has to do," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state and top adviser to Glendening during his first bid for governor in 1994, remembered that the year before the election, Glendening was viewed as a long shot. "In 1993, Glendening was a very comfortable third," Willis said.

But Glendening, who was then the Prince George's County executive, also made the rounds county by county. And Willis said that made a difference.

"He would spend days doing that, trying to reach as many segments of the county as he could," he said.

During a recent Duncan visit to the Lonesome Dove Country Kitchen in Queen Anne's, County Commissioner Gene M. Ransom III, a Duncan supporter, said that another benefit of Duncan's tour is that it helps humanize him. It allows activists to judge Duncan in person - to watch him order the shrimp salad platter and a Diet Coke as he did that day - and not through stereotypes of what a Montgomery County guy might be like.

"Where you live is I don't think as big a deal as it used to be," Ransom said. "Do people automatically think because I grew up on the Eastern Shore that I'm a hick?"

Yesterday's stop in Caroline County included a private lunch at the home of James F. Fretterd, the former adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, and his wife. Though Fretterd hasn't endorsed Duncan, he clearly likes him. Duncan's record in Montgomery County illustrates that he can get things done, Fretterd said.

"You look at his success story there, and Maryland needs that," he said. "We have enough gridlock and finger-pointing in Annapolis."

Duncan, a towering figure who wore a navy pinstripe suit yesterday, also toured Denton's Choptank Electric Cooperative, which employs about 180 workers and serves 46,000 people. With Caroline County Commissioner Mario J. Gangemi handling the introductions, Duncan popped his head in every office. He extended a hand and said, "I'm Doug Duncan. I'm running for governor."

Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and an O'Malley supporter, said that even though it's still very early in the race, it's going to take something more than county tours for Duncan to make up ground.

Schaller suggested that an endorsement from a U.S. congressman or senator might boost Duncan's profile.

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