As he opened a meeting of the state's spending panel on Wednesday, Gov. Martin O'Malley struck a somber tone. The day before, the state had released a report showing that Maryland had lost jobs for two months in a row.
"None of us can give up," he said. "There are better days coming."
It was a notable contrast to O'Malley's demeanor just a month ago, when he led a group of local officials gathered in Ocean City in a gleeful cheerleading chant: "Repeat after me. Five months. In a row. Of positive. Job growth."
The Democratic governor and his opponent this fall, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., both have said the economy is the single most important issue of the campaign. For months, O'Malley has trumpeted the state's monthly jobs gains in an attempt to temper voter anger about the national recession.
But the news this week that the state suffered two months of job losses after four months of growth means O'Malley must adopt a more muted approach when discussing the economy.
"There's no question the jobs report is going to have an impact on the campaign," said Todd Eberly, acting director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College. Before the numbers came out on Tuesday, he noted, O'Malley had begun to shift away from the "general anxiety of the economy," with a television advertisement in the Washington market focusing on education.
"He now must re-pivot and focus on jobs and job creation," Eberly said.
Ehrlich was ready to pounce, quickly issuing a statement criticizing O'Malley for "simply not understanding how to create jobs." The pessimistic report plays into a theme that challengers across the country are using, with success: Blame the economy on the incumbents.
About the numbers out this week, Ehrlich said, "They are terrible. But don't ask me. I'm a candidate for office."
Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Audrey Scott used the jobs report to jab at O'Malley's campaign slogan.
"It doesn't look to me like we're 'moving forward,'" she said. And the Republican Governors Association highlighted Maryland's job losses and business closures in a television advertisement it began airing this week in support of Ehrlich.
Throughout his campaign, O'Malley had been able to point to a streak of monthly reports showing job growth that began in March. And he has done so in online banner advertisements that tease, "learn why Maryland is bucking the national trend," before directing readers to his campaign website.
Campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said such ads "will be edited." He said O'Malley's message remains strong. "I think people are smart enough to understand that we're coming out of a national recession, and there are going to be ups and downs."
Maryland lost 5,700 jobs in August after losing 1,000 jobs in July, according to this week's report by the U.S. Labor Department. The July numbers were a revision; an initial report had shown a slight gain in July, for a total of five months in a row of jobs growth. The state's unemployment rate rose slightly, to 7.3 percent.
Maryland still has lower unemployment than three-quarters of the states, and is creating jobs more than twice as fast as the national average. In addition, a recent report showed that Maryland is one of two states in which personal income has risen since the recession.
The state revenue picture has continued to improve, too.
"The fact is, we are doing better," Abbruzzese said of how Maryland stacks up against other states. Still, most politicians acknowledge that those pluses fall on some deaf ears across the state.
"Unfortunately, all the things you've done right go unnoticed to all those people who are struggling," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat.
Busch said it should be clear to voters that "Governor O'Malley didn't create the national recession," and emphasized that governors of both parties — from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California to Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm in Michigan — have had to endure the economic slog.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County political scientist Thomas F. Schaller said O'Malley and other incumbent state lawmakers are in the unenviable position of making a pitch that the economy could be worse.
"It is not a satisfying argument to make," said Schaller, who writes an op-ed column for The Baltimore Sun and has supported Democrats. "And it is not a satisfying message for voters to receive."
Today, O'Malley's campaign spokesman says, the governor will announce a new group of supporters: Hundreds of business leaders from across the state.
And the day the jobs report came out, O'Malley unveiled a website for job-seekers to find openings. In a release about the site, he said he "share[s] the frustration of many Marylanders whose hope for a quick recovery process is met with slower than expected job growth."
The Maryland Labor Exchange System, at https://maryland.geosolinc.com, pulls listings from job-search engines and employer sites across the Internet.
Ehrlich sounded stunned by the initiative.
"That is classic," he said after a campaign event Tuesday. "Classic Martin O'Malley. Last time I checked there are other websites that do this."
But in his haste to seize on the negative report as a campaign issue, Ehrlich issued a statement proclaiming that Maryland's job loss in August was the "highest in the nation." That distinction actually goes to Michigan, which shed 50,300 jobs last month.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the campaign was referring to the increase in Maryland's unemployment figure, from 7.1 to 7.3 percent.