Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. turned aside primary opponents on Tuesday to set up a rematch of their 2006 contest. But this time, it's O'Malley who is the incumbent, fending off Ehrlich, now the challenger.
"Both of us have records. Both of us have made choices," O'Malley said Tuesday night. With the primary now out of the way, he said, "public attention becomes much more focused on the contest for governor."
Walking into his victory party, Ehrlich expressed confidence.
"For months we've had two candidates beating up on us: an unpopular Democrat and a startup Republican," he said. "And we've been doing just fine."
Ehrlich celebrated a victory over Republican challenger Brian Murphy. The conservative businessman had enjoyed the support of many in Maryland's tea party movement and gained wider attention with a surprise endorsement by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
But that support didn't translate into dollars, and Ehrlich, attempting to position himself as a centrist for the general election, mostly ignored him during the primary campaign.
Ehrlich waved off any concern Tuesday about winning back Murphy voters.
"We feel very solid with conservatives," he said. "And more importantly for this race, we feel very solid with crossover Democrats."
O'Malley defeated two unknown and unfunded primary challengers, Ralph Jaffe and J.P. Cusick, in the Democratic primary.
After traveling the state on Tuesday, the frontrunners spent primary night at rallies a few miles apart in Baltimore. Ehrlich roosted at the Ropewalk Tavern, a Republican-friendly bar in Federal Hill. O'Malley monitored election returns from his campaign headquarters in Canton.
O'Malley predicted "a vigorous contest of ideas" in the gubernatorial campaign. He said he'd continue his theme of moving Maryland forward: "I believe Maryland is poised for great decades ahead."
The candidates, who have focused their campaigns on the economy, will spend the next seven weeks refining their messages to voters. But analysts said primary voters had messages for both.
"Every commentator in the state will say that before he can deal with O'Malley, Ehrlich will have to make amends with conservatives," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "There's always a choice. There are people who will stay home, who will have to be convinced that Ehrlich is their kind of Republican before voting for him."
Others said Murphy's voters were unlikely to sit out the general election. But they had varying takes on what that might mean for Ehrlich and O'Malley.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks gubernatorial contests nationwide as senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that "conservative voters could go to the Libertarian or Constitution Party candidate in the general, which creates a problem for Ehrlich in a close race."
But Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said the Murphy voters were likely "an energized conservative base that's going to vote for Ehrlich in the fall. They're not going to sit out or vote for O'Malley."
Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott said she anticipated Murphy and his supporters would return to the party fold. "I'm sure [Murphy] will, and his supporters absolutely must get on the bandwagon. … Every Republican who does not support the Republican ticket is a vote for the Democrats," she said.
For days, O'Malley aides had attempted to pre-empt talk that the number of Cusick and Jaffe voters would hold any meaning. They pointed to years' worth of elections in which the Democratic gubernatorial candidate was selected by a narrower-than-expected margin in the primary and still went on to win in the general election.
But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, said O'Malley should pay attention to the margin that emerges from his primary, though late Tuesday, the Democratic challengers did not appear to have siphoned many primary voters from the governor.
"In Martin's race, the number could mean something," Miller said last week. "Maryland is home to lots of blue-collar Reagan Democrats. They believe in God and guns. They're very patriotic. In terms of national and statewide elections, they often go to the candidate of other party."
At Hillcrest Elementary school in Catonsville, Democratic voter Kevin Taylor said he did not select O'Malley in the party primary. Taylor, 39 and a vice principal at Towson High School, said he will be voting for Ehrlich in November, as he did in 2006.
"I'm not crazy about" O'Malley, he said. "Economically, I don't agree with a lot of his plans."
Democratic voter Matt Ames did select O'Malley Tuesday — and said he'd do so again in November.
"These are tough times for everyone," said Ames, 41 and also a school administrator in Baltimore County, "I think he's done a pretty good job with the schools. They're the best they've been."
The gubernatorial candidates might look to the running mates to activate troves of voters: O'Malley's lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown, is a resident of Prince George's County, which has the state's largest Democratic base.
Ehrlich's running mate, Mary Kane, is a resident of Montgomery County, an area of independent-minded voters, some of them registered as Democrats, where he hopes to have a far better showing than he did in 2006.
Baltimore Sun reporters Paul West and Tim Wheeler and Capital News Service reporter Stacy A. Jones contributed to this article.