Attorney general: No favorite in race

Sun poll Maryland votes 2006

July 18, 2006|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL | ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

Democratic primary voters have yet to settle on a favored candidate to replace retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., a new Sun poll shows.

Nearly 2 of 3 likely Democratic voters say they remain undecided in the race for attorney general, indicating that the contest is wide open for the three candidates vying to become the party's nominee to succeed a leader who has been a fixture of Maryland politics for more than four decades.

But with less than two months until the primary, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez and former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms face substantial challenges of broadening support, winning name recognition and translating their strengths into votes, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent Bethesda-based polling company.

"There is a lot of pie left for people to go after," Haller said.

He said that that in 20 years of analyzing Maryland politics he had yet to see a statewide race so unformed.

The survey of 604 likely Democratic voters conducted July 6-10 shows the two candidates from Montgomery drawing support locally, and the lone candidate from Baltimore, Simms, earning the bulk of his support from his home region.

Simms holds a lead of 15 percent to 12 percent over Gansler. The difference is within the survey question's 4.1 percentage-point margin of error, meaning the race is a statistical tie.

Perez drew 6 percent of the vote in the poll. Although Gansler is leading him in Montgomery County, Perez is drawing votes there, Haller said.

"I don't count any one of the three out," said Isiah Leggett, a former Montgomery councilman and past chairman of the state Democratic Party who has endorsed Perez.

An aggressive campaigner who has been eyeing the statewide office for years, Gansler has a financial advantage. He had $1.4 million in available campaign cash as of January, the most recent campaign finance report.

But Leggett said that even that money might not provide enough of an edge in a state with a lot of voters to reach and two large media markets.

"Perez is beginning to rack up a large number of endorsements," he said, pointing to the backing of several labor groups.

And Simms, Leggett said, has a substantial network of people, experienced Baltimore politicians among them, helping him.

Not only has the race barely gotten under way, but none of the candidates is known statewide, making the candidates difficult to handicap, Leggett and others said.

The survey points to candidates' need to quickly and efficiently capture voters' favor, especially outside of their home turfs, said Haller, the pollster.

"This is like the Oklahoma land rush," he said.

Curran was first elected attorney general in 1986, and won re-election four times with relative ease. But when he announced on May 8 that he would not seek a sixth term, the state's political establishment was taken by surprise.

His decision was driven in part by family loyalty: His son-in-law, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, is running for governor. By deciding to retire, Curran avoids possible conflict-of-interest questions about representing a family member as an attorney.

Gansler's name was most frequently mentioned as an expected candidate, and about a week after Curran's announcement, Gansler said he would run.

Perez announced about a week after that, having obtained an opinion from Curran that he met the qualification of 10 years of legal experience in Maryland - though a lawsuit filed last week challenges that.

Simms entered the race in late June, after Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan withdrew from the race for governor. Duncan had chosen Simms - who also served as a Cabinet secretary under Gov. Parris N. Glendening - as a running mate.

"I'm kind of surprised nobody with a much higher profile didn't run," said Carol L. Hirschburg, a Republican analyst.

However, she and others said, Curran's decision's coming late in the election cycle may have contributed to some potential candidates' decision against mounting a statewide campaign.

Simms received a bump in recognition from his brief tenure as a lieutenant governor candidate, Haller said.

Simms had 38 percent of the voters polled in Baltimore, where he served as the city's chief prosecutor for eight years, and 25 percent in Baltimore County. But he drew only 7 percent in Montgomery County and 3 percent in Prince George's County, according to the poll.

Gansler, a former federal prosecutor, had the backing of 30 percent of voters polled in Montgomery County, but half that in neighboring Prince George's County. In the Baltimore area, he had 4 percent.

Perez, a law professor at the University of Maryland and a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer, had 10 percent in Montgomery County and 8 percent in Prince George's County. In the Baltimore area, he drew only 3 percent support.

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