The gubernatorial contest between Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will likely be decided in a series of battleground territories — both geographic and demographic.
If, as expected, they win their respective primaries on Sept. 14, each will focus his time and money chiefly on the populous Baltimore suburbs and on vote-rich Montgomery County, which, while left-leaning, is also home to Maryland's largest group of unaffiliated voters and a seldom-remarked trove of Republicans.
Four years ago, Ehrlich prevailed in 19 of the state's 23 counties, but O'Malley took Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties to win the election. Since then, the electorate has grown more Democratic, but it might also have grown weary of incumbents.
O'Malley aides say that he will work to energize reliably Democratic groups such as African-Americans, who went to the polls in record numbers when Barack Obama was a draw on the presidential ballot two years ago.
The Ehrlich campaign will try to harness voters angry at the state's one-party monopoly — Democrats control both the state legislature and the governor's office — and fearful of increases in their taxes.
One afternoon last week, O'Malley and Ehrlich visited Baltimore County, regarded by analysts as Maryland's principal political battleground.
O'Malley whirled through an elementary school that the state helped to build in West Towson, posing for photos with people too young to vote and straightening up to shake the hands of their parents. Even in tough economic times, O'Malley has said, he spent $1.3 billion on school construction.
"Make sure parents know," he told an administrator who erupted in praise upon seeing him. "Sometimes we wonder where that penny goes," a reference to his penny-per-dollar sales tax increase that Ehrlich wants to repeal.
About the same time, wearing sunglasses and no tie, Ehrlich was relaxing on a deck at the home of a supporter in Perry Hall. He talked to about 20 people, several of them Republican lawmakers or candidates, about taxes that he believes might be raised next year if Democrats get their way. He wondered about services that could be taxed and whether the sales tax would go up more, saying, "This is what goes down in a monopoly."
Both appear comfortable in Baltimore County, a place that delivered each more than 100,000 votes four years ago.
Ehrlich was born and raised in Arbutus and spent years representing the area as state delegate and congressman. Though he's lived in Annapolis for most of the past decade, he still calls Baltimore County home, and even Democrats note the dominance of Ehrlich's navy blue lawn signs over O'Malley's lime-green ones.
But four years ago, as now, the former Baltimore mayor has been helped in the county by strong support from prominent Democrats, including County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Councilman John Olszewski Sr. Smith turned his sour relationship with Ehrlich into what many considered an effective television ad for O'Malley. He said Ehrlich had not returned his phone calls in three years, a contention that Ehrlich never disputed.
Election Day returns showed the two candidates essentially tied in Baltimore County; Ehrlich narrowly won there when absentee ballots were counted. Political observers and even his campaign advisers say Ehrlich needs a far better showing in his home county this time around.
Smith predicted that O'Malley would not "do as well here as he did then," but said he sees little likelihood that Ehrlich can widen his edge.
"We have a lot of swing voters," he said Thursday. But "I don't see them swinging back toward someone they rejected four years ago."
Smith believes O'Malley is going to widen his margins in some parts of the county.
"He's in a good position," Smith said. "Not the best position, but a good position."
Del. J.B. Jennings, a Republican running for the state Senate and a former Ehrlich intern, said Ehrlich "absolutely" must do better in Baltimore County this year "and he absolutely will." Jennings' assessment of the election landscape is that it is an about-face from four years ago, when Marylanders were fed up with then- President George W. Bush and voted Democratic as punishment.
"When I knock on Democrats' doors, they say, 'I'm voting Republican. I'm disgusted with what's going with the president and with Congress,'" Jennings said.
Other Baltimore suburbs
It is not just in Baltimore County where Ehrlich hopes to pick up votes. He has held public events in Howard County — another "purple county" in which red and blue voters live side by side — twice in recent weeks. The county narrowly favored O'Malley four years ago. Analysts say Anne Arundel and Harford, traditionally more Republican, are not to be discounted.