As they weigh their choice for governor, Maryland voters are divided over which candidate would best handle the issues that matter most to them, a new Sun poll shows.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s biggest perceived strength, according to the survey of 1,200 likely voters, is in managing the state's economy, while more voters favored Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley on education, the environment and managing rising electricity rates.

The governor has already been stressing his economic credentials in speeches and television ads.

He has talked about turning a projected state budget deficit into a surplus since his election in November 2002, and notes that he has fought against tax increases proposed by General Assembly leaders.

Asked which candidate would better handle the economy, voters give Ehrlich an edge over O'Malley, 46 percent to 39 percent. The poll's overall margin of error is plus-or-minus 2.8 percentage points.

Ehrlich's budget acumen "made an impression on me," said poll respondent Yvonne Aasen, a 74-year-old Republican from Severna Park.

Critics say that Ehrlich has submitted spending plans that have outpaced inflation, and that the next governor will also face a projected deficit. They also say that the governor's no-new-taxes stance is weakened because he raised various fees and fines.

O'Malley is viewed as a better advocate for the environment, with a 47 percent-to-35 percent advantage, despite having little experience on major environmental issues facing the state, such as preservation of the Chesapeake Bay.

The advantages on the economy and the environment, however, may have nothing to do with voters' knowledge of specific candidates, said James Gimpel, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.

Studies have shown that voters tend to stereotype parties on issues, he said. Voters tend to think Republicans are better at fighting crime, and therefore give Ehrlich higher marks in that area, he said. Similarly, O'Malley scores better on education because Democrats hold a reputation for caring more about public schools.

Those views of party issue ownership "tend to be very durable over time," Gimpel said.

In a similar poll conducted in July 2002, voters were asked which candidate - Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, or Ehrlich, then a Baltimore County congressman - would better handle the same issues. The lesser-known Ehrlich earned an advantage on dealing with the state's budget problems, while Townsend took a commanding lead on the question of being a steward of the environment - 52 percent to Ehrlich's 28 percent.

She also held a strong edge on the question of improving schools, 48 percent to 35 percent. She lost the election.

This election year, O'Malley doesn't have as big a lead on improving education - it's just 43 percent to 38 percent - a relatively small edge, which should encourage the Ehrlich campaign, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the policy research and polling firm in Bethesda that conducted the poll for the Sun.

O'Malley has faced criticism over the performance of city schools, which have long been at the bottom of the state academically and endured a financial crisis during his term in office. Ehrlich has slammed O'Malley repeatedly on the way he has managed the schools.

Chevy Chase Democrat Shelly Weinstein, who runs an education and technology nonprofit organization, said the education issue is about more than just K-12 schools. She is upset with the rising costs of higher education and what she sees as a lack of improvement in standards under Ehrlich. She is leaning toward voting for O'Malley.

But Ehrlich, who would be expected to lead on the crime issue, is in a statistical tie with O'Malley on that question, despite the Baltimore's persistently high crime rate. O'Malley promised to bring the city's homicide rate to 175 a year by 2002, a goal he failed to meet. Ehrlich held a 14-point lead on crime control four years ago against Townsend.

The poll shows that O'Malley holds a big advantage in "representing the interests of average people," 51-34, but that, too, is a question that usually favors the Democrats, Haller said. Townsend held a lead on that issue four years ago, though it was much smaller.

On the topic of energy costs and the recent concern over rising BGE bills, respondents were asked which candidate would be better to keep electricity prices under control. More than four in 10 likely voters said O'Malley would be better, as opposed to 35 percent for Ehrlich.

"I certainly don't believe that Governor Ehrlich would be better on the economy," Weinstein said. "Look at what the state of Maryland is facing on energy costs." While Ehrlich wasn't the one who caused electricity rates to rise, Weinstein said, "the reports were there in front of the governor that something had to be done" and it wasn't.

Haller, The Sun's pollster, said the divide among voters over which candidate is more capable on important issues portends a tight race. O'Malley leads Ehrlich by 46 percent to 38 percent in the poll, but the governor has narrowed the gap since last fall.

"These head-to-head comparisons on top substantive issues - you quickly see how close the election is going to end up," Haller said. "To me it sends up a smoke signal that this is going to be a very, very close election."

Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said he hopes a real dialogue about schools, crime, the economy and more can happen in the next four months, instead of having the gubernatorial race come down to the outsized personalities of the two men vying for the job.

"It's unfortunate that elections come down to lot of sloganeering," he said. "That all takes away from the serious discussion."

stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com