Race boils down to substance vs. style

Solid Duncan has to fight O'Malley's flash

Maryland Votes 2006



Reasoned and serious, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has legions of supporters who believe he would make a fine governor -- if he ever wins a statewide race.

"If you hired a governor rather than elected one, it would be a no-brainer," said Blair Lee IV, a political commentator from Montgomery and son of a former governor and lieutenant governor. "On paper, Duncan has twice as much executive experience as the other two [candidates] combined."

But to get to the State House, Duncan has to succeed in a Democratic primary against Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a telegenic young leader with a national profile on homeland security issues. He would then face Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an incumbent with a fat bankroll and a penchant for folksy commercials that give him an I'll-mow-your-lawn-while-you're-down-at-the-ocean appeal.

Taking the next step in his gubernatorial bid, Duncan announced last week that he has chosen former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms as his running mate -- a man with many of the same qualities as Duncan. Simms is, by most accounts, a rational, modest and low-key public servant who cares more about good government than self-promotion.

So Duncan supporters are embracing reality, tacitly acknowledging that their ticket might seem less exciting than the combination of O'Malley and his running mate, Anthony G. Brown, the Prince George's County legislator and Iraqi war veteran who makes everyone's list of rising political stars.

"When you listen to people, the theme that you hear over and over is `Tell me how you are going to solve problems,'" said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a longtime Simms ally and a Duncan supporter. "That's really a yearning for substantive people, and Duncan has really picked up on that."

But in an era when 30-second commercials swing undecided voters and when a Hollywood action hero was elected leader of the most populous state in the union, can substance truly win out in a political campaign?

Sure it can, said Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux. Voters are keenly aware that that poor government decisions have deadly consequences, Arceneaux said, pointing to the Iraq war and to how New Orleans trying to rebuild itself after Hurricane Katrina seemed to catch the federal government flat-footed.

"We believe that competency and accountability in government matter," he said. "And in the post-Katrina climate, we find ourselves in an election year where people will focus on that more than in the past."

Duncan touched on that theme in his first television commercial, which began airing last week in the Baltimore market. "These guys get lots of attention for themselves," Duncan says in the ad, standing next to life-size cutouts of O'Malley and Ehrlich. "It's time someone paid attention to you."

Campaigning on a substance-not-style theme poses risks, however, said Bruce E. Mentzer, head of Towson-based Mentzer Media, a communications firm that works with Republican clients.

"A lot of people think the country is not on the right track. People are unhappy," Mentzer said. "In running for office, substance means experience. ... I don't think people really think that's a plus right now."

Duncan deserves credit for directly addressing one of his key weaknesses, said Michael Hudome, a Republican media consultant based in Virginia.

"He doesn't have much style," Hudome said. "You have to be honest in your advertising. It makes sense for Duncan. He doesn't have much choice."

As the elected chief of Maryland's largest jurisdiction, Duncan has been considered gubernatorial material for years. In 2002, many Annapolis leaders tried to persuade Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the eventual Democratic nominee, to select him as her running mate, arguing that the ticket needed someone who knew how to run a government. Duncan never embraced the idea, and Townsend went in a different direction.

Many capable Maryland politicians have been hampered by a perceived lack of vibrancy. Supporters say Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat regarded by many as highly competent but bland, could have been an excellent governor. He never ran.

While charisma can be an asset in electoral politics, the governorship is a position in which it might not be a prerequisite. Many successful governors fit the "wonkish white male" mold, such as Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican who was elected Wisconsin governor four times before becoming secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration. In Maryland, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening overcame the perception that he was a nebbishy, gray-haired college professor to win two terms.

O'Malley supporters reject the notion that their candidate -- who sings in a Celtic band while wearing shirts that accentuate his biceps -- is all show.

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