Nice surge for Ehrlich, but is it enough?


I am not surprised by the results of the latest Sun poll on the coming gubernatorial election, which shows Bob Ehrlich, the Republican incumbent, gaining ground on Martin O'Malley, the Democratic mayor of Baltimore. Ehrlich may be a Republican but he didn't launch the invasion of Iraq nor set the price for gasoline (or electricity), and Maryland voters -- duh -- apparently make those distinctions. At least for now.

Plus, Marylanders, including those who have no intention of voting for him, generally like Ehrlich.

His approval rating has gone up 5 percentage points since our last poll in November, and, significantly, he has closed the gender gap with O'Malley by picking up about 10 more percentage points among women. A Washington Post poll last month showed that 77 percent of registered voters find Ehrlich likable, and 75 percent think he's honest. (They didn't ask the question, but I'm assuming a similar percentage like that he's always suggesting we take a day off in those Maryland vacation ads.)

Is all this enough to give Ehrlich victory over O'Malley?

Not if full-scale war breaks out in the Middle East, and the price of energy goes further off the charts. Voters won't be so nice about separating Ehrlich from their view of Republicans nationally. Half of those the Post surveyed last month said Maryland is on the wrong track. Nationally, there's more pessimism. Nearly 70 percent of voters surveyed two weeks ago by the Associated Press-Ipsos poll said the country was on the wrong track, and 63 percent in the survey said they disapproved of President Bush's performance.

War in the Middle East, all-out civil war in Iraq, $4 for a gallon of gas -- any of those could push voters into full anti-incumbent mode, and it would be difficult for Ehrlich to find cover.

Still, as of today, we have a race.

Despite the fact that Maryland has nearly twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, that he is running against the most appealing candidate the Democrats have presented in 20 years, that he allowed himself to be photographed with George Bush as recently as last month, and that he seemed to have spent his first three years in office pushing slot machines and little else, Ehrlich is closing the gap and might even threaten to make the November election a photo finish.

Martin O'Malley led in the latest Sun poll by 8 percentage points, 46 to 38, with 16 percent undecided. His lead had been about 15 percentage points.

This was the first Sun poll since November and the first since O'Malley's primary opponent, Doug Duncan, dropped out. Straight up against Ehrlich, O'Malley beats him in the three jurisdictions key to statewide victory -- Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and Baltimore. But in another county of consequence, Baltimore County, Ehrlich has regained his edge over the Democrat since November. He leads there now by 4 percentage points.

Nice recovery, but he'll need more than that to beat O'Malley.

Getting significant numbers of Democrats in the suburbs to vote for him is essential to Ehrlich's campaign. (In 2002, he beat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by more than 200,000 votes in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Frederick counties.) Problem is, those are among the Marylanders who commute the longest distances and spend the most on gasoline; they could be the ones who make incumbents "pay at the pump."

Of course, it might be fully incorrect to link issues with gubernatorial candidates this year. These two men both have strong personal appeal; they both have some political star power, though O'Malley gets the slight edge there, and that might be all he needs.

Still, Marylanders recognize this is an election, and not American Idol. (You do, right?)

They're looking not only for sound management of the state government, but a vision for the future and a plan for dealing with some profound problems -- the cost of health care, for instance, or the expected boomlet in Maryland population over the next decade. That's where Ehrlich and O'Malley need to make a mark, and soon. (The governor was due to present his new health care initiative today.)

Given that Duncan dropped out of the primary campaign and that he is enjoying a decent lead, O'Malley doesn't really have to take any risks by rolling out an agenda. He can run on his record, trumpeting the positives of his six years as mayor and reminding voters of his efforts to challenge the Ehrlich administration and the Public Service Commission over the BGE rate increases. (In the Post poll, 66 percent of voters said big business had too much influence in the Ehrlich administration while a comparable percentage said average people had too little.)

Ehrlich will have to go hard at O'Malley on the mayor's record in Baltimore -- the governor has already engaged in hyperbole to describe it as "horrific" -- and he'll have to correct an apparent perception that O'Malley is the best man to tackle the top voter issue.

And according to the Sun poll, that issue is education.

Although Baltimore's schools typically score the lowest on state tests, Marylanders in our poll considered O'Malley more likely than Ehrlich to improve education as governor. No doubt O'Malley's party affiliation has a lot to do with that. Still, given that the mayor, by design, has little to do with managing Baltimore's public education system, and that the state has been making moves to take over failing schools, that's a remarkable result. More than anything, it's probably a testament to Martin O'Malley's personal appeal, his star power. And that might be Bob Ehrlich's biggest obstacle

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to the "The Buzz" with Chip Franklin on WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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