One year before the 2006 statewide election, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. trails his two chief rivals, with many voters approving the incumbent's job performance but signaling a desire to return the state to its traditional Democratic roots.
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley leads Ehrlich by 15 percentage points, 48 percent to 33 percent, according to a poll conducted for The Sun by the independent, nonpartisan firm Potomac Inc.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has a 5 percentage point lead on the governor but has gained little ground on the mayor in the weeks after the two Democrats' formal entry into the governor's race.
In a primary matchup, O'Malley leads Duncan, 42 percent to 23 percent, a 19-point spread that has barely budged despite the executive's high-profile campaign announcement and statewide tours. In an April Sun poll, O'Malley had a 20-point edge on Duncan.
Ehrlich's job approval ratings have improved slightly since the end of this spring's acrimonious General Assembly session, with 50 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving of his performance.
But his standing in the governor's race comes amid a national wave of discontent with his party, fed by scandals such as the CIA leak case, the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay and criticism of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Recent surveys have shown that Bush's popularity in Maryland is at an all-time low. When Ehrlich entered the governor's race four years ago, the president's popularity was near its peak.
Pollster Keith Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., said the governor's prospects may be at a nadir because of the sagging fortunes of the Bush White House and recent news media attention devoted to O'Malley and Duncan as they have started their campaigns.
The governor has not formally announced that he is seeking re-election, and his aides have said he will likely not begin campaigning in earnest until a Democratic nominee emerges - possibly as late as September.
"It's still his race to win or lose," Haller said, adding that with three years of governing under his belt, Ehrlich needs a new message to capture voters' imagination during bad times for his party.
"He has yet to make his public case for his incumbency," Haller said. "He's always been able to win support through a very likable persona. He's had success reaching out to blue-collar Democratic audiences in the Baltimore suburbs, but he may want to revisit the basic strategy in light of national events, which may be a little bit of a tidal wave effect that has swept the entire landscape in the country."
The survey of 1,008 likely voters was conducted Oct. 27 to Nov. 1 and has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. Questions about the Democratic primary have a margin of error of 4.6 points.
In a matchup against O'Malley, Ehrlich's support from his Republican base has eroded slightly since last spring, dropping from 75 percent to 67 percent.
But Democrats, who outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in Maryland and were key to Ehrlich's 2002 victory, have closed ranks behind O'Malley in the past six months, with 67 percent saying they would vote for the mayor, compared with 57 percent in April. O'Malley also has a 20-point lead among independents.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver questioned the validity of the poll's results.
"It's hard to take these poll numbers seriously when the governor is currently in litigation with The Sun," DeLeaver said, referring to a lawsuit the newspaper filed last year over the governor's decision to bar state executive branch employees from speaking to a Sun reporter and a columnist.
"The governor is confident that when it actually counts, the numbers will be less skewed and present a more accurate depiction of Maryland's electorate," she said.
During the 2002 election, Potomac Inc. - using the same methodology - predicted Ehrlich's victory and had him erasing the early lead of former Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by July of that year.
O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein said he thinks voters are responding to the mayor's record of accomplishments.
"We are pleased that Martin still holds a lead over Ehrlich, but our campaign will take nothing for granted as we get out our message that a stronger Maryland can do better, especially when it comes to leadership," Epstein said.
Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux said the poll shows there is "no difference in electability" between Duncan and O'Malley in a matchup against Ehrlich.
"We know the challenges Doug faces," Arceneaux said. "We need to get our name out; we need to get Doug better known in the Baltimore region. That's what we've been doing for six months and will continue to do."
Several poll respondents said they once held a positive view of Ehrlich but had soured on him because they found his policies less moderate than they expected.