The mayor has seized on Ehrlich's handling of the BGE issue to paint him as a creature of corporate interests, not the people. He has relentlessly attacked the governor's appointees on the Public Service Commission, and he filed a lawsuit to stop Ehrlich's BGE rate increase deferral plan in hopes of getting a better deal.
O'Malley's victory in that suit is widely credited as the catalyst for the special session in which the General Assembly enacted a new rates plan. Ehrlich's veto gave O'Malley more fuel for his attacks.
"It's hard enough for working families to make ends meet without having to fight their own governor at the same time at every turn," O'Malley said Friday. "The number of times, the frequency, the petulance with which he has used his veto powers have almost made him irrelevant to the governing process."
The governor said yesterday that he will continue the BGE fight on the campaign trail, but many political strategists said they expect the issue to fade and the candidates to return to the predictable script.
"This is going to go off the radar screen by August, and then we can start talking all about the failing schools, the crime, the murder rate in Baltimore," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris, the Republican whip from Baltimore County. "We're going to get back to the kind of issues that people will care about in the long run."
Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who is not seeking re-election, said his constituents are upset about the rise in BGE rates, about the deregulation of the electric industry and with the way the issue was handled by their elected leaders. But he said the issue has grown so confusing that many don't know where to focus their anger.
Instead, he said, the dominant factor in his district will be a broad sentiment about the race, not a single issue. Ehrlich won over the conservative Democrats in Jimeno's district in 2002 not because of his own appeal, the senator said, but because of voters' antipathy toward his opponent: then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
"They like Martin O'Malley," Jimeno said.
Ehrlich has a tremendous advantage as an incumbent. No incumbent governor in Maryland has lost re-election in decades, and he can now use the considerable powers of his office to keep himself in the news.
But he must contend in a state in which Democrats hold a 2-1 advantage in voter registration, at a time when the popularity of the sitting Republican president and Congress are low.
Many of those watching the race said Duncan, in announcing his withdrawal, sent a powerful signal to his party to unite and return the State House to Democratic hands. He endorsed O'Malley, and Democrats say they expect the mayor will easily be able to win the support of Duncan voters and campaign contributors.
Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and early Duncan supporter, said Democrats found themselves in the position this year of picking between two excellent candidates to challenge a governor who has disappointed and angered them at every turn.
"When Martin O'Malley calls to ask me for my support, he's going to have to pull me out of Mass because I'm going to be there praying for his victory," Madaleno said.
Ehrlich said Friday that none of the recent developments has changed his plans. He said he has always known that Democrats would unite to try to unseat him, and he has long been ready to make O'Malley "defend the undefensible."
Duncan and O'Malley have been consistently ahead of the governor in published polls, but O'Malley always came out ahead of the county executive in the primary race. People close to the governor say his campaign wasn't spending much time preparing for a match-up against Duncan but that Ehrlich has been itching to take on O'Malley for a long time.
"The general election started at 11:06 p.m. on Nov. 5, 2002," Ehrlich said, noting the minute he learned he had won the election. "If you look at the O'Malley campaign, they've treated this as one-on-one from Day 1. Quite frankly, this is no big change for us, either."