A map that accompanied an article in yesterday's editions about a poll in the race for governor should have been titled "Candidates by region," not "Candidates by county." The map intended to show that Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were statistically tied in the Greater Baltimore region, which includes Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties. It did not mean to imply that the candidates were tied in each jurisdiction in the region.Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is maintaining his lead over Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the race for Maryland governor, a new poll for The Sun shows, having countered a barrage of critical commercials expected to intensify over the six weeks until Election Day.
Still, Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election, remains a popular figure in a state where Democrats outnumber the GOP by about 2-to-1. Voters give Ehrlich and O'Malley - both 40-something telegenic politicians - about equal marks on leadership and ability to move the state forward, suggesting that the contest could wind up very close.
O'Malley, a Democrat, has a 6-percentage-point lead among likely voters, 50 percent to 44 percent, about the same margin he held over the Republican incumbent in July. But it is a much smaller advantage than the double-digit leads he held last year before Ehrlich began campaigning in earnest.
"This campaign should be neck-and-neck in November," said Keith Haller, the president of Potomac Inc., which conducted the Sun poll.
The statewide survey of 815 likely voters was conducted Sept. 15 through Sept. 18, and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. The survey reveals underlying trends and perceptions that offer signs of encouragement for both campaigns.
Four years ago, Democrats lost the governorship for the first time in 36 years, when Ehrlich defeated former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. But voters say they have more confidence in Democrats to handle state problems than they did when Ehrlich took office - a positive sign for O'Malley.
In a Sun survey in January 2003, state voters said Republicans were better able than Democrat to handle state issues by 41 percent to 39 percent. But since then, support for Ehrlich's party has steadily slipped, and support for O'Malley's has steadily gained.
Now 49 percent of voters think Democrats are well-equipped to handle problems, compared with 35 percent for Republicans, a 16-point swing in four years.
Richard Crane, a 57-year-old O'Malley supporter from Essex, said he sees the mayor trying to tackle the problems important to the middle class, and calls Ehrlich fixated about legalizing slot machines.
"Yeah, there are some retirees who take their quarters once a month and go to Dover Downs, but how much money is going out of state because people are moving because of high taxes, crime and poor schools?" said Crane, who voted for Townsend in 2002. "Those are the problems that Ehrlich should be addressing, and he's not, and those are the problems that I see O'Malley addressing."
But despite the surge for Democrats, the poll shows that Ehrlich remains largely untouched by the problems his party faces.
The Bush effect
Although President Bush has seen some improvement in his standing nationally, he remains profoundly unpopular in Maryland, with 34 percent of voters approving of his performance and 59 percent disapproving.
That hasn't rubbed off on Ehrlich, despite O'Malley's nearly constant attempts to link the governor with the president.
Ehrlich's job approval rating isn't as good as it was early in his term, and it has slipped by 6 points since July, largely because of an erosion of support among Democrats. But now, as throughout his entire term, a majority of voters - 51 percent - think Ehrlich is doing a good job. The poll found that 38 percent disapprove.
Allan Hess, a 58-year-old Democrat from Cockeysville, said he disapproves of Bush because of the Iraq war but said that has nothing to do with Ehrlich.
Hess, who works at the Johns Hopkins medical campus in East Baltimore, said he's not impressed with O'Malley's performance in the city, especially on crime and schools, and thinks Ehrlich is a more solid leader.
"He's a really good speaker, and he's addressed some of the issues, maybe not to my full liking, but at least there's a plan there that's solid," said Hess, who voted for Ehrlich in 2002. "Martin O'Malley has a plan to do this and this, but how are you going to pay for it? It reminds me of the Richard Nixon-era `I have a plan to get out of Vietnam' but no specifics."
O'Malley has the solid support of his party's base. Liberals back him overwhelmingly - 81 percent to 11 percent - and Democrats back him by a 70 percent to 19 percent margin.
But he also retains a 15 percentage point lead among moderate voters, the sort who abandoned the Democratic Party to support Ehrlich in 2002.