If the Democratic primary is likely to decide who will be the state's next governor — a reasonable but not entirely certain proposition, given the balance of power between the state's two major parties — at this point in the contest two somewhat contradictory realities are in evidence.
This first is that the battle between Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur for the Democratic nomination is anybody's race to win. A new OpinionWorks poll for the Baltimore Sun revealed that, with only four months to go before the June 24 primary, a remarkable 40 percent of likely Democratic voters are undecided.
The second is that Mr. Brown, despite failing to gain separation from his two competitors, remains the "anybody" with the best chance to win. He leads among likely Democrats with 35 percent support. Mr. Gansler and Ms. Mizeur received 14 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
For Mr. Gansler, the new poll brought both good news and bad.
On one hand, the attorney general should be encouraged that Mr. Brown hasn't locked down the nomination already, especially given what a rough time politically Mr. Gansler had in 2013: his fumbling of the story about his teenage son's graduation party; the (presumably leaked) stories of his allegedly rude treatment of state trooper escorts; the blowback caused by his suggestion that Mr. Brown brings little to the gubernatorial race beyond, well, his race.
The bad news for Mr. Gansler is that he doesn't seem to be gaining much traction statewide. His lead over Ms. Mizeur for second place is so thin it's smaller than the poll's 4.4 percent margin of error; in effect, he's tied for second in a three-way race, which is a polite way of saying he's in last place.
Mr. Gansler's chief problem is that he and Ms. Mizeur are eating from the same Montgomery County-based, white liberal electoral bowl that Mr. Gansler needs mostly for himself if he hopes to win the nomination. The more even the levels of support are for Mr. Gansler and Ms. Mizeur, the more Mr. Brown benefits from divide-and-conquer politics. Suffice to say, Mr. Brown would be wise to make Ms. Mizeur feel welcome in the race; she is, in effect, his shadow running mate.
Mr. Brown's actual running mate is Ken Ulman. Pairing early with the Howard County executive was a brilliant move by Mr. Brown that provided his campaign a financial boost and gave him the inside track to the second floor in Annapolis. Mix in a string of union endorsements and the backing of Gov. Martin O'Malley, U.S. senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, half of the state's U.S. House delegation, and scads of state legislators and county officials, and there's little doubt Mr. Brown is the party establishment's choice.
That said, and given the large chunk of undecided Democrats, Mr. Brown's task is simple: Don't blow it. As sometimes happens, being perceived as inevitable is no guarantee of inevitability (ask Hillary Clinton, who enjoys a commanding lead in Maryland in a potential 2016 Democratic presidential primary).
So far, at least, the lieutenant governor has run a mostly mistake-free campaign. Steady wins the race is the operational imperative for Mr. Brown, who needs only to nurture his lead until June.
Which is exactly is why Mr. Gansler is shrewdly attempting to goad Mr. Brown into making mistakes, blaming the lieutenant governor for the state's health care website and in general questioning his readiness to lead the state. The attorney general understands that he must find ways to shake up the race and rattle Mr. Brown.
But he's running out of time. Mr. Gansler has just four months to consolidate the state's white liberals behind him, find a way to pick up votes in the suburban Baltimore counties, and run up big margins in the smaller counties of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
That's his path to the nomination.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.