Primary challenge

October 20, 2005

MONTGOMERY COUNTY Executive Douglas M. Duncan makes it official today: He's running to be Maryland's next governor. The early polls suggest it's going to be tough for him to overcome his primary opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, let alone beat the Republican incumbent next November. But don't sell Mr. Duncan short. His biggest obstacle is simply that he's not well known outside his own county. That can change soon enough.

It's troubling, however, that so many of Maryland's Democratic leaders seem to view Mr. Duncan as some kind of interloper in their efforts to remove Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from the State House's top floor. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has made it clear that he'd like Mr. Duncan to withdraw sooner rather than later. How quickly Mr. Miller forgets. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was spared a serious primary challenge - and promptly lost to Mr. Ehrlich.

For voters, the advantage is clear - the more options, the better. Indeed, there's something downright undemocratic about a choiceless primary. Nobody likes a bunch of party bosses pulling the strings - except, of course, for the party bosses.

Some Democrats worry that their nominee will emerge from the contest next year battered and financially depleted while Mr. Ehrlich can watch from above the fray. That might happen, but not necessarily. A primary can draw the attention of indifferent voters. Issues will have to be debated, messages sharpened. Mr. Ehrlich's flaws will be dissected. And it's possible the winner will have time to recover, particularly if the Democrat-controlled legislature moves the primary to June.

Today, Mr. Duncan will tout education as his centerpiece issue. Certainly, his 11 years running Maryland's largest and most diverse county and nurturing one of the state's top school systems deserves consideration. He's a demonstrated pro-business leader who thinks Maryland's future requires investment in biotechnology and stem-cell research, not slot machines. It's hard to ignore his county's economic success.

Granted, this campaign might grow tiresome soon enough. We can only hope the rhetoric won't descend to the levels that characterized the debates over slots and medical malpractice reform. Mr. Duncan, the 49-year-old son of government workers, has already shown he won't be dismissed by the politicos. Not a bad way to get a leg up on an uphill climb.

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