The race is to the swift? Duncan puts it to the test

May 07, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

He's not the Energizer bunny, but he keeps going and going and going. He's more like the Energizer tortoise, capable of beating - or crippling - the front-running hare.

Almost every Maryland Democrat has worried publicly that Douglas M. Duncan, the Montgomery county executive, will ruin their party's chances of re-taking the governor's mansion this year. He'll create a debilitating primary that softens the eventual winner, leaving him vulnerable to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Why, then, doesn't Mr. Duncan wake up and smell the coffee? Why doesn't he get out of the race?

Why doesn't he stop bashing his opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, and Baltimore in the bargain?

Mr. Duncan's answer? He keeps going.

Last week, he stepped out officially with his choice of running mate, Stuart O. Simms, the highly regarded but seemingly ambition-free former Baltimore state's attorney and Maryland corrections secretary.

The Duncan selection came later than many expected, but Mr. Duncan sought to make that a plus. He who chooses first does not always choose best, he said.

Mr. Duncan had delayed long enough to leave some expecting a less-than-impressive choice. If you're running behind in the polls, quality running mates may hesitate to join you. But if, as in this case, you find someone good, eyebrows are raised.

Mr. Duncan has moved up a bit over the last year, a year in which he has been a much more active campaigner than Mr. O'Malley has. He has taken the battle to the mayor in major ways, suggesting over and over that failing city schools and intransigent crime in the streets of Baltimore are the marks of a failed leader.

Mr. O'Malley has been dismissing these volleys as the last resort of a desperate competitor. At one point, Mr. Duncan accused the mayor of cooking the books on violent crime, claiming more of a reduction than was warranted by the facts.

Surely he was going to push the boundaries as he sought an issues foothold, something that would make his thrusts look like more than the proverbial puppy nipping at heels. More recently, he has held his own in the battle for attention in the jamboree of attacks on the energy companies, the state regulators and Mr. Ehrlich.

Last week, while he was announcing his choice of Mr. Simms for lieutenant governor, he began to run television ads in the Baltimore area. Some think Mr. Duncan's incessant campaigning has improved his name-recognition in the Baltimore region significantly.

He needs further in-roads, no doubt. Mr. Simms and various Simms allies will help with that. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has thrown his name behind the pro-Duncan forces. Even if he doesn't campaign much, that gesture could be bankable politically.

The Duncan TV ad begins with pasteboard images of Mr. O'Malley and Governor Ehrlich. He gently nudges them aside, saying, "No, not these guys, I'm Doug Duncan, Democrat for governor." It's a modest acknowledgement of his coming-from-behind status. It was like the tortoise poking his head out of the shell, saying, "Hey folks, I'm still in the race."

Which is not to say the Duncan approach is soft. His campaign has tried to create an issue over debates: "We thought someone with as much alleged political acumen as the mayor would want multiple debates lest people think he is all style and no substance." Get used to that phrase.

Mr. Duncan offers himself as a man with seasoning, experience and maturity, arguing pointedly that neither Mr. O'Malley nor Mr. Ehrlich can make a similar claim. He's been calling himself the adult, a not-so-subtle shot at both his rivals.

In a sense, the tortoise has been out on the track by himself. Neither the mayor nor the governor has really begun to campaign. Both want to save their money and energy for the general election - and both run the risk of allowing Mr. Duncan to define them.

As frontrunners in their respective parties, they haven't had to fear the turtle. That, of course, could change.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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