Maryland voters might not be ready, but six candidates with their eye on the governor's mansion are poised to start running in earnest — touring the state, signing up volunteers and raising millions of dollars for a spirited race.
Candidates from both parties say they plan to start selling their ideas this fall, more than a year before the November 2014 general election and months earlier than past gubernatorial contests.
"We're moving into this phase when the policy and platforms are being rolled out," said Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "It doesn't necessarily mean that voters want to be on that timeline."
Republicans and Democrats running to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley, who cannot serve a third consecutive term, say they have no choice. Because of a change by the General Assembly in 2011, they face a political calendar in which the primary will be held in June rather than September.
While there's still time for late-comers, both parties already have crowded primary election ballots.
The leading Democrats are Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County.
The Republican lineup includes Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County and Charles Lollar, a Charles County business executive.
Analysts say voters can expect the most competitive primary races in 20 years.
"It's going to be a fantastic election to watch because you've got this great competition on both sides of the nomination," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College. "It's sort of rare that we have a competitive race on one side. It's extremely rare to have competitive races on both sides."
Even before voters are hit with an onslaught of town hall meetings, social media pitches and personal appeals, candidates have begun a contest of ideas about Maryland's future, rolling out high-profile policy proposals.
Brown, Gansler and Mizeur have staked out positions supporting an increase in the minimum wage. Gansler has also backed a high-speed rail line from Baltimore to Washington and floated ideas about cutting the corporate income tax and increasing manufacturing.
Craig has proposed a sweeping rollback of environmental laws. His rivals for the Republican nomination have joined him in taking aim at one of them, the state's stormwater management fee, derided by critics as a "rain tax."
In the coming weeks, all six campaigns plan to visit more with voters and parade more suggestions to improve the state.
"We'll have a number of ideas and proposals that we'll roll out over the course of the campaign, now and through June to November," Brown said. "It's a conversation that we start, and we won't stop until the campaign's over."
Brown, 51, a Prince George's County lawyer in his second term as O'Malley's lieutenant governor, plans to detail a proposal for expanded early childhood education next week and to present ideas to improve Maryland's business climate in the next month. If elected, he would be the state's first black governor.
Brown, who in May was the first to jump into the race, has named Howard County Executive Ken Ulman as his running mate and collected endorsements from more than half of Maryland's elected Democrats.
Mizeur, 40, a second-term delegate, has been traveling the state doing community service projects as she listens to voters. Mizeur's to-do list includes promoting affordable preschool and "measures to close the socioeconomic gaps in our state education and criminal justice systems," said her campaign manager, Joanna Belanger. If elected, Mizeur would be Maryland's first female governor and the first openly gay governor in the country.
Gansler, 50, a second-term attorney general and former state prosecutor, has floated proposals to reduce the likelihood that criminals will return to prison, to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, and to convert chicken litter — an environmental pollutant — into an energy source.
Communications director Bob Wheelock said Gansler will conduct issue forums not just to share his ideas but to solicit new ones. "People don't want to just hear what Doug has to say, they want to be listened to," he said.
Perennial candidate Ralph Jaffe of Baltimore County also has said that he will run in the Democratic primary.
All three Republicans have said that they will stress economic issues.
Lollar, 42, is casting himself a fiscal conservative and social libertarian. He said he plans to sell voters on his ideas to create a "taxpayer bill of rights" to limit tax increases, as well as proposals to reduce unemployment and the tax burden on businesses.
George, 60, an Annapolis businessman and jeweler, has crafted a "10-Point Promise" to Maryland voters that includes increasing government transparency, instituting no new taxes and cutting the corporate income tax rate.
Craig, 64, has named Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, a state delegate from the Eastern Shore, to his ticket. He plans to work the talk radio circuit and travel the state pitching his ideas about repealing the tax on pensions, shrinking the state Education Department and canceling state contracts for speed cameras.
The new election schedule puts pressure on campaigns to build their support and raise money before the General Assembly convenes in January, when state officials must take a break from fundraising until the session ends in April.
Once the session winds up, Marylanders can expect an 11-week race to the June 24 primary election finish line — and what will likely be an all-out ad blitz by the best-financed campaigns.
The race is expected to be expensive. In 2010, when O'Malley and former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had their rematch, total campaign spending reached $22 million. That was a drop of $8 million from 2006, when O'Malley ousted Ehrlich in the costliest election in state history.
Not all candidates in next year's race would publicly discuss their fundraising, but aides privately agreed that statewide bids will easily cost $7 million to $10 million or more.
Lollar put forth the most ambitious goal.
"We've got to raise $13 million, and we know that," he said. "We know it's going to take that —- and maybe even more to win this election."
Feb. 25: Filing deadline for candidates
June 12: Early primary voting begins
June 24: Primary election
Oct. 23: Early voting begins
Nov. 4: General election