Rockville -- Revealing that he received a diagnosis of clinical depression this week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan bowed out of the race for governor yesterday, a startling move that reshapes this year's contentious gubernatorial campaign.
Duncan's decision eliminates the need for a long and costly Democratic primary that some had feared would leave the eventual nominee depleted of cash and politically bruised.
In an attempt to unite his party, Duncan endorsed Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley in the fall contest against incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
"In the course of waging a vigorous and aggressive campaign, increasingly I've struggled with what has recently been diagnosed as depression," Duncan said during a terse, emotional announcement at the county office building. "At first, I attributed this to the stress of the campaign, but over the past couple of months it became clear that ... this was more than the usual wear and tear of the campaign trail."
Supporters and rivals said they were shocked by the decision. Some lamented the loss of a candidate who, although he was an underdog from the start and was still trailing by double digits in many primary polls, is considered by members of both parties as a seasoned and competent leader.
"It's now a two-man race," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Ehrlich is going to roll out all the guns. It is going to be a tough campaign. Given the voter registration in this state and the polls that I have seen, this has got to be considered O'Malley's race to lose."
The decision left uncertain Duncan's political future and that of his running mate, former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms.
Simms agreed to join the ticket a week before Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a Democrat, said he would not seek a sixth term. Many political observers have said that Simms would be a formidable candidate for attorney general.
Duncan, 50, said yesterday that he will serve the remaining six months of his term as county executive and will not seek re-election this year, which would end his 12-year tenure as one of the state's most visible county leaders. He did not rule out a future campaign.
Joined yesterday by his wife, one of his five children and Simms, Duncan received a standing ovation as he entered a standing-room-only conference room in the Montgomery County executive office building.
Campaign staff members listened as Duncan read a three-minute statement in a tone that, as has been true in the past several weeks of his campaign, offered no indication of his illness.
"It's difficult for me to announce today that I will no longer be a candidate for governor of Maryland, but it's the right decision for me, for my family and for our state," Duncan said. "Now, it's time for me to focus on my health."
He left the room after reading the statement and did not take questions from reporters.
Though the extent of his illness is not clear, campaign aides said Duncan made up his mind to quit the race early yesterday morning. He visited a doctor and received the diagnosis Monday, and began taking anti-depressant medication this week.
Duncan and O'Malley, veteran politicians and aggressive campaigners, had been circling each other for months.
Duncan had campaigned heavily in Baltimore, attacking the mayor's record on crime and schools. O'Malley has established a visible network in Montgomery County - where he grew up - and his running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, recently predicted that the mayor would carry the state's most-populous jurisdiction outright.
House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, who endorsed Duncan early in the campaign, said he thinks O'Malley will quickly capture support from those who until yesterday backed Duncan.
"With Duncan and O'Malley on one hand and Ehrlich on the other, it's like you've got a choice between chocolate ice cream, vanilla ice cream and liver," Barve said. "I'll take vanilla."
Duncan's rivals praised the county executive for waging a good fight for months and wished him well.
Speaking after a corporate picnic he attended at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Ehrlich called Duncan's diagnosis a "very serious condition" and said he felt "a great deal of empathy" for the county executive.
In an unusual jab at O'Malley, Ehrlich had said earlier in the day that he appreciated the respectful way Duncan had run his campaign, as opposed to the way the mayor has run his.
"It can be a pressure cooker to begin with," the governor said of the grind of a statewide political campaign. "We're competitors, but [Duncan] has always been a gentleman."
O'Malley, who got a call from Duncan during a noontime Mass he was attending in downtown Baltimore, kept a low profile yesterday. He issued a statement that offered prayers and called Duncan an outstanding public servant, but he let Brown, his running mate, answer questions on behalf of the campaign.