Focus shifts to the top two races

September 17, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

With the subplots of last week's primary election fading and the clutter of campaign signs for failed candidates thinning, Maryland is focusing its political energies on the main event: races for governor and U.S. Senate that could shape state politics for years to come.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is challenging him, have been itching for this fight for four years. And both national political parties are poised to pounce on the race between Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, which could help determine which party controls Congress.

Ehrlich's quest to be the first Republican governor to be re-elected in Maryland in a half-century rests on his ability to persuade voters that he has changed the state for the better and that O'Malley hasn't done the same for Baltimore.

O'Malley's strategy for taking back the governor's mansion for Democrats centers on his claim that he has moved the city forward while Ehrlich has blocked progress at every turn.

Cardin, a seasoned legislator from Baltimore County, wants voters to see him as the man to stand up to President Bush in the Senate.

Steele, who is seeking to become the first black Republican senator in 30 years, is using hip-hop appeal and an outside-the-beltway perspective to present himself as an agent of change.

Less than two months before the Nov. 7 general election, here's how these races will unfold:


Ehrlich faced no primary opponent, and Steele's most visible challenger was Daniel "Wig Man" Vovak, a candidate better known for his Colonial coiffure than for his electoral prowess. Both have been using their incumbency and prominence to raise huge amounts of campaign cash, which they have been able to save for the general election.

"You wouldn't believe how it's pouring in," Ehrlich said at a campaign stop Tuesday.

O'Malley is well behind Ehrlich, who has broken his own record for gubernatorial fundraising.

"It's not going to be easy in the next 55 days," Del. Anthony G. Brown, O'Malley's running mate, said at an Annapolis rally Friday. "It's going to be difficult for Martin O'Malley and Anthony Brown to run against the $20 million man."

O'Malley got a break when his primary opponent, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, withdrew from the race this summer, just as his ad campaign critical of the mayor and the governor was starting to catch on.

Democratic Party leaders had worried for more than a year that a primary fight between O'Malley and Duncan would leave the eventual nominee penniless, battered and unable to keep up with Ehrlich during the short general election campaign.

Duncan's withdrawal probably saved O'Malley millions and allowed him to use advertising introducing himself to voters and attacking Ehrlich.

"The only event that redounds in my mind as an unmistakable negative for the Ehrlich administration is the Doug Duncan pullout," said Richard Vatz, a professor of political rhetoric at Towson University and a longtime friend of the governor. "It took away a credible source of criticism of O'Malley."

Cardin won the primary against former Rep. Kweisi Mfume but emerged with his finances depleted by an expensive ad campaign. He said he will be developing fundraising goals so that he can get his message to voters.

"President Bush and his money machine have made good on their promise to funnel millions to Michael Steele's campaign," Cardin spokesman Oren Shur said in an e-mail message. "To fight back, we're going to depend on the donations of concerned citizens from Maryland and across the country who know that Ben Cardin will stand up to President Bush and bring about real change."

It appears that he will have more help than that. Steele campaign manager Michael Leavitt issued a memo last week detailing $971,000 in television airtime that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved in Maryland from Oct. 24 to Nov. 7.

"We can surely expect the million-dollar ads they run during this time to trot out the `Bush-Steele' attacks from their own playbook, attacks that have no relevance to Michael Steele but are a very large part of implementing a national Democratic Party campaign strategy for the 2006 election cycle," Leavitt wrote.


Ehrlich campaign manager Bo Harmon said there will be no surprises in Ehrlich's message between now and Election Day. The governor will seek to persuade voters that, as his campaign signs say, he is "changing Maryland for the better" and that O'Malley is not fit to lead the state.

Ehrlich has spent most of his time talking about education, bragging about his funding for kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools and criticizing the Baltimore system's performance. He has stayed on message, talking about the issue wherever he goes.

The strategy from here on out, Harmon said, is "continuing to focus on the governor's accomplishments on TV, radio and in the mail."

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