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Campaign struggling, Gansler seeks the right message

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler took the stage at a Baltimore forum this week trailing in the polls, his fundraising advantage erased and big challenges ahead in his campaign for governor.

"Let me start by defining who I am — or who I like to believe I am," Gansler told the audience.

Political experts say Gansler should have done that months ago, after spending the early stage of the campaign responding to a string of controversies and letting his opponents define him instead. One opposition ad this week portrays him as having Republican ideals — in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

Now, 21 points behind Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and with Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County chasing him in the polls, analysts say Gansler must come up with a consistent sales pitch — and soon — if he hopes to persuade enough undecided Democratic voters to support him in the June 24 primary.

"It's not clear to me what message he's selling," said Matthew Crenson, political science professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins University. "He's just not getting through."

Gansler is embracing the role of underdog. "I do know what I'm up against," Gansler said Wednesday at the Baltimore Sun Newsmakers Forum. "It's the status quo. It's the entrenched politicians versus the reform candidate from the Democratic Party."

The two-term attorney general is portraying himself as a fighter for the average citizen, a risk-taker, an outsider who can take on the establishment in Annapolis.

"My whole thing is fighting for people," Gansler told reporters Friday as he pitched a domestic-violence bill in Annapolis, one that accomplishes the same goal as another bill for which Brown lobbied that day. "I couldn't care less who gets the credit for it. I just want to make sure it gets done."

A year ago, Gansler had amassed a $3 million cash advantage and was widely considered a leading contender in the Democratic race to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley. But with four months left until the primary election, Brown has caught up in the fundraising contest and has outmaneuvered Gansler, garnering a big lead in the polls.

Gansler must attract as many as three out of four undecided voters if he hopes to win, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

So far, Norris said, Gansler has yet to deliver a clear theme. Norris questions whether he can. "Gansler has had two years to find one," he said.

Gansler, 51, has focused on two major issues that could seem at odds with the views of the Democratic base, blasting the state's rollout of the Affordable Care Act as a failure in leadership and promoting a cut in the corporate income tax rate as a way to attract jobs.

His chief rival, Brown, has used that as ammunition to portray Gansler as having Republican views. In a Web ad released this week, Brown juxtaposes footage of Gansler saying the state can't afford to offer pre-K classes for all children with Gansler's position that Maryland should reduce its corporate income tax rate to match Virginia's.

The ad features voters responding, including one who says Gansler "sounds like a Republican." The video, which the Brown campaign aggressively marketed through social media, received more than 10,000 hits in its first day.

"If he doesn't fix this within a month, he very much could walk himself right out this race," said veteran Democratic strategist Mike Morrill, who does not support any candidate in the race.

Morrill said the accusation that Gansler has Republican views doesn't match up with his record — being the first statewide official to openly support same-sex marriage back in 2008 and attacking companies for environmental violations or breaking consumer protection laws. "That shouldn't stick unless Doug lets it," Morrill said.

Gansler's campaign was beset last year by controversies, including remarks about Brown relying on being black to win over voters and Gansler's attendance at a teenage party after which he said it was not his responsibility to stop underage drinking.

Moreover, Gansler's message has been muddled, some analysts say. He's rolled out so many ideas that it's hard to define his candidacy simply. Mizeur can easily be identified as the most liberal, with ideas such as legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenue for universal preschool. Brown is seen by many as a continuation of the O'Malley administration.

Gansler, meanwhile, has pitched eyeglasses for children, apprenticeship programs, manufacturing proposals, a chicken-waste-to-energy program, giving tablet computers to inmates, and building a maglev train between Baltimore and Washington. While he says the state cannot afford universal pre-K for everyone, he has pitched a limited expansion of pre-K for the most disadvantaged students. He proposes cutting the corporate income tax, but also closing tax loopholes.

"He's been trying to announce a broad range of issues that would let him be defined as a progressive on policy," Morrill said. "But since they have been such a range of issues, nobody knows what they are. No one remembers them. The only people who know this are junkies, like me."

Gansler strategist Bill Knapp said it was always the plan to present Gansler first as a man of broad ideas, then frame Gansler as "a fighter and a doer" for those ideas. Knapp said over the next few months, voters can expect Gansler to sharpen that message.

The plethora of ideas has appealed to some undecided voters, including Ann Costlow, a small-business owner from Baltimore. "I feel like he's determined, which I think is important," Costlow said. "He's clearly the underdog at this point, but he wants to make a change to this status quo. I think it is important we do look at how to do things different. I like to hear new ideas, and I appreciate the fact that he's willing to sort of make waves."

Jake Mohorovic, a former state delegate who came from Dundalk to hear Gansler at the Baltimore Sun forum, said he finds it refreshing that Gansler speaks in details and specifics instead of rhetoric. "If he can capitalize on those details, I think it can only help him," said Mohorovic, who said he remains undecided.

Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland, said Gansler's message would resonate in the general election. "His problem is that he has to get Democratic primary voters."

This week, when Gansler visited the college, he defended a proposed liquefied natural gas facility at Cove Point in Southern Maryland as long is it is environmentally safe — a project opposed by environmental groups and Mizeur. Even though some other high-profile Democrats, including U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, back the project, voicing strong support is not a position calculated to win over primary voters, Eberly said.

"Gansler's got to give people a reason to vote for him," he said.

With more than $6 million on hand, Gansler has plenty of money to deliver his message. The campaign is opening the seventh of its planned nine statewide campaign offices Saturday. Gansler and his advisers acknowledge that they are behind in the contest, but say that most voters are barely paying attention yet. Next week, they plan to release a detailed economic plan.

And Gansler has kept his sense of humor, joking about how a Washington Post poll released this week a few days after The Sun's poll showed a slightly smaller disadvantage for him.

"We're actually gaining traction, that's a good thing," Gansler said. "It's all about momentum."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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