Perceptions narrow the gap

Ehrlich attacks on O'Malley effective in influencing voters, poll finds


Sun Poll

Maryland Votes 2006

November 01, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN REPORTER

A year ago, 37 percent of Baltimore County residents felt that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley should not be governor because "he has left so many problems unresolved" in the city, a Sun poll showed.

Now, after a barrage of TV ads criticizing the mayor's policies on crime and education, 54 percent agree with that premise in the key battleground county, according to a new poll.

Crucial counties

In part because of this message, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has managed to make significant inroads in Baltimore's suburbs - leading O'Malley in both Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and running neck-and-neck in Howard County, the poll showed. All three counties were crucial to Ehrlich's victory four years ago.

"O'Malley has been hurt politically in the Baltimore suburbs by the Ehrlich campaign's charges that he's somehow failed as mayor of Baltimore," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., which conducted the poll. "It strikes me the attacks against O'Malley were aimed especially at the Baltimore suburbs."

O'Malley has similarly sought to characterize Ehrlich as caring more about special interests than he does about ordinary people. And while nearly half of all voters agree with that, a new Sun poll shows, some experts believe that O'Malley's message has not been delivered as vigorously as Ehrlich's attacks on the mayor's policies on crime and education.

"He let Ehrlich put those ads on trashing Baltimore without pointing out that all the problems not only existed long before he became mayor, but in most cases they were worse," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "He hasn't made that point very forcefully. Ehrlich is blunt. The mayor is not. The mayor seems to want to wrap everything in rhetoric so the points don't come across as starkly as when Ehrlich does."

Eight hundred people were surveyed in the telephone poll, which was conducted from Saturday through Monday. The results have a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Statewide, 40 percent of respondents said O'Malley should not be elected governor because he has left many problems unresolved - up sharply from 29 percent last year.

A clear majority of voters - 52 percent - disagree with Ehrlich's claim, but that number rose only slightly from 48 percent a year ago. And Haller said growing negative perceptions of O'Malley in suburban counties have helped to close the gap in the race.

Ehrlich has repeatedly framed the race as a referendum on his own record and O'Malley's. The Republican governor has pointed to the city's low high school graduation rate and the high frequency of violent crime as indications that the mayor has not done an effective job. O'Malley, the Democrat, has countered that while the city is not perfect, progress has been made.

One Ehrlich spot includes ominous music and night scenes of Baltimore as the advertisement states: "In Baltimore's criminal justice system, there is talk, and there are facts." The spot then says O'Malley failed on a campaign pledge to reduce homicides to 175 a year. Last year, there were 269 killings in the city.

Crime, schools

In another ad, the narrator argues that Baltimore is the most dangerous city in America and that the city's school system is in "shambles." The advertisement concludes by saying O'Malley would "do for the entire state of Maryland what he did for Baltimore." The commercial, which began airing this month, was paid for by the Republican Governors Association, a group that is technically separate from Ehrlich.

Wendy Nelson, 49, who lives in Baltimore County and describes herself as a Democrat, said she will vote for Ehrlich this year in large part because she thinks the governor has done a good job. Nelson worries about the problems facing Baltimore City - though she agrees that many of those problems were in place before O'Malley was elected.

"There are some concerns," she said. "The schools are an issue. I think there has been some pro-gress made, but I don't know if it's been quick enough, fast enough."

O'Malley's central message-that the governor favors big business - appears to have been less effective in the waning days of the campaign, though 49 percent of respondents said they agree that even though Ehrlich comes from "modest roots," more often than not he sides with large business interests.

In Baltimore County, 50 percent agreed with that premise and in Anne Arundel, 47 percent agreed.

O'Malley has also focused on a proposed 72 percent rate increase for BGE customers - a plan that was approved by a regulatory agency appointed by Ehrlich - as well as increases in college tuition. One of the mayor's most recent advertisements featured an image of Ehrlich near his boyhood home of Arbutus, and it suggested that the governor had forgotten his blue-collar roots.

Terry Hansen, 59, a Joppatowne resident, said she doesn't pay attention to the spin from either campaign. She said she believes O'Malley has made significant progress in Baltimore - enough that he should be given the job as governor.

"I've been pleased basically with what he has done and how he's handled the influx of ongoing problems that a large city has," said Hansen, who said she believes stem cell research is a major issue in the campaign. "He is really ultimately responsible for the city, but I still think that he's done a good job working with what he had."

Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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