O'malley Lays The Ground For 2010

Possible Challengers To The Governor From Both Parties Weigh Options

July 06, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Gov. Martin O'Malley laid out a vision for the state last week when addressing hundreds of local officials at a convention. Even though his term ends next year, his plan extends for five years.

The governor's rhetoric could be taken as a subliminal campaign message, conveying to voters that he intends to seek re-election and be around for a second term. While O'Malley hasn't officially announced his candidacy, and several potential challengers have yet to make their plans known, the 2010 race has begun in subtle ways like this.

O'Malley, a Democrat, has been laying the groundwork by getting an early jump on fund-raising and broadly outlining issues that are likely to become part of his platform. He often returns to a handful of key themes, such as the environment, public safety and education, and touts accomplishments such as Maryland's top-ranked public schools.

But some leaders within his own party haven't been won over by O'Malley's performance. Democratic opponents have been meeting in recent weeks to decide who would risk roiling the party by mounting a primary challenge. Among those in on the conversations is O'Malley's 2006 primary foe, former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who is contemplating a return to politics but stops short of saying he'll run for governor.

Several Republican contenders also have been looking for potential O'Malley missteps and conducting listening campaigns to gauge voter attitudes and their chances. Even as many wait for former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to decide whether he would run, efforts are under way to draft lesser-known candidates such as Charles Lollar, an African-American and chairman of the GOP central committee in Charles County.

The conventional wisdom is that O'Malley would be the clear favorite as an incumbent in a heavily Democratic state.

The Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections across the nation, predicts the race is solidly in O'Malley's favor and unlikely to be closely contested. And the governor's approval rating hit nearly 50 percent earlier this year, or just three percentage points below his post-election rating, according to Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.

But the economy could become an Achilles' heel. The unemployment rate in Maryland has topped 7 percent, the highest in more than a quarter-century, and the financial malaise could continue for several years. The state budget has suffered, and next year's shortfall is projected to be at least $1.2 billion, putting pressure on the governor to cut spending or raise revenues just before an election.

"If not for the economy, O'Malley would be sailing right along, and no one would be talking about challenging him," said Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "If things don't turn around on the economic front, he could be a target."

In a six-page letter mailed recently to supporters, O'Malley said he would mount an even stronger campaign effort than in 2006. He acknowledged that "actual campaigning" won't begin until next year but asked for donations that would serve as seed money for a "massive fundraising and grass-roots effort."

The governor also has set 15 strategic policy goals, reminiscent of a set of goals outlined in the last campaign. In keeping with a statistics-driven approach, the governor's latest objectives include reducing violent crime annually by 10 percent, creating or saving 250,000 jobs in sectors such as health care and technology by 2012, and increasing transit ridership 10 percent a year.

"Our focus primarily is on governing well, and if we continue to do that, we should be in pretty good shape," O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said.

But even some in his own party have taken exception to the way O'Malley has governed. Among those whose names have been floated as potential primary opponents are former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and George W. Owings III, a former state delegate and Calvert County Democrat who served as secretary of veterans affairs under Ehrlich.

Owings said he has opened a campaign account, traveled to different venues to talk with voters and met with other potential challengers. He said he disagrees with O'Malley's handling of the state budget that included raising the sales tax during a 2007 special session and with the governor's personal lobbying to repeal the death penalty. But he acknowledges a steep disadvantage to O'Malley, and he hasn't made it official yet.

"If it's absolutely futile, we're going to pull away from it, but if there is a glimmer of hope, we may launch a run," Owings said, adding: "There's a part of the Democratic Party that believes as I do."

Duncan talks like a candidate as well, lambasting O'Malley, who he says is "hurting our party and hurting our state." But Duncan hedges when it comes to declaring candidacy. "There will be a Democratic challenger to the governor; I'm convinced of that," he said. "It depends on who it is."

In addition to Lollar, other Republican names that have been floated include Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., a real estate company executive who almost unseated Steny H. Hoyer in the 1990s and served in Ehrlich's cabinet, and John White, a marketing company executive who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006. Mike Pappas, a construction attorney and political neophyte, has formed an exploratory committee.

White said he's not seriously considering running, though he's not ruling out anything. Hogan said national and state leaders have asked if he would consider campaigns for various offices, though he declined to give specifics. Hogan added that he is currently focused on pushing Ehrlich to commit to a rematch.

For his part, Ehrlich has not made up his mind either. "The answer to the larger political questions will come in due time," spokesman Henry Fawell said.

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