George W. Owings III, a former Maryland veterans affairs secretary, launched his long-shot Democratic primary challenge Wednesday to Gov. Martin O'Malley, whom Owings criticized for raising taxes, making "devastating" budget cuts and seeking to repeal the death penalty.
"The time to return to a day of good government is upon us," Owings, 64, told more than 100 supporters on a courthouse lawn in Prince Frederick.
Owings compiled a conservative record on issues including abortion, gun rights and tobacco during 16 years as a state delegate from Calvert County. He was tapped in 2004 to serve as Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veterans affairs secretary.
During Wednesday morning's announcement speech, Owings chided O'Malley, who dismissed him as secretary four months into his administration, on a range of issues. Owings said the 2006 campaign slogan O'Malley used in his race against Ehrlich - "Leadership That Works" - had turned out to be "a veiled and empty promise."
O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell declined to comment directly on Owings, saying that the governor "is focused right now on doing everything he can do to create jobs and make the tough decisions that Maryland needs in this difficult time."
It remains to be seen what kind of traction Owings might gain running to the right of a far-better-funded incumbent in a Democratic primary.
"Historically, the liberal side of the party is what comes out in a primary," Owings said. "But I think there's a feeling in this current climate that is going to motivate those who would otherwise stay home to come out. There's a sense of desperation out there, of real fear."
Earlier in the week, Owings dismissed speculation that he is running at the urging of Ehrlich, who is contemplating a rematch with O'Malley next year. "I haven't spoken to the former governor in several months," Owings said.
Polls in recent months have shown that O'Malley has lukewarm approval ratings, and the economy is expected to pose a challenge for Democratic governors seeking re-election in the coming year.
Still, in hypothetical general election matchups with Ehrlich, polls have shown O'Malley leading by at least as much as the 6.5 percentage points by which he defeated Ehrlich in 2006.
In a sign of early strength among fellow Democrats, O'Malley released a list in September of more than 300 elected officials supporting his re-election. He has also maintained a busy fundraising schedule in recent months.
In October, aides said the governor raised about $1 million in a single night at an event in Baltimore. He is not required to report updated totals until next month. Owings has no obvious base from which to raise comparable money.
Any attention that O'Malley is forced to pay to Owings could detract from his focus on his Republican opponent in the November general election. Maryland holds relatively late primaries, in September.