As early voting got underway Thursday in the primary race for governor, the four Republicans competing for the GOP nomination jockeyed to present themselves as the most qualified to take on a Democrat in November.

The candidates taped a final televised forum in a Washington studio and, as they have in the past, largely agreed that tax cuts are in order after eight years under Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

But the normally genial discussion among the Republicans was punctuated by each candidate trying to reinforce his credentials as the conservative most likely to succeed in a state where Democrats hold a 2-1 registration advantage.

Anne Arundel businessman Larry Hogan, the front-runner, told NBC4 moderator Chris Gordon that the media have ignored the broad discontent that led many Maryland residents to leave the state. He repeatedly pointed out that he was not a politician, saying it's "about time the politicians in Annapolis started listening to the rest of us."

Harford County Executive David R. Craig, taking a swipe at Hogan's "Change Maryland" slogan, presented himself as a seasoned leader and the only candidate who has managed a government agency. "We don't need to change Maryland," he said. "We just need to restore it to the way it used to be."

Charles Lollar, a business executive from Charles County, dismissed the suggestion that his inability to raise large sums of money would prevent him from winning in November. "If it were all about money and a Republican primary, Michael Steele would currently be our U.S. senator," Lollar said, referring to the former lieutenant governor's expensive loss to Ben Cardin in 2006.

Del. Ron George emphasized repeatedly that he owns a small business — a jewelry store in Annapolis — that, combined with his eight years as a delegate, makes him uniquely suited to the job of paring back government spending. "I can cut this budget. I can cut the waste. I know where it is," he said.

All four candidates supported cutting taxes, although Hogan declined to identify which he would cut. George criticized Lollar and Craig for vowing to repeal the state's personal income tax, suggesting he offered a more sensible approach to trim it by 10 percent and then monitor the impact.

Each candidate endorsed the natural gas extraction process known as fracking, and each promised their cuts in government spending would not have a meaningful impact on classrooms across the state.

Hogan deviated from the pack by not promising to overturn the sweeping gun control law the legislature passed last year. Hogan said that while he would work as an executive to mitigate its impact, it would not be not feasible to persuade the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to reverse course.

Hogan also said that he recently met with the CEO of the gun manufacturer Beretta, and the company agreed to hold off on moving more jobs out of state in case a Republican were elected governor. The Italian gun company's U.S. headquarters has been on the banks of the Potomac for decades, but the company recently announced its next expansion would be in Tennessee because of Maryland's new ban on the sale of assault-style rifles and limits on magazines.

George, who pointed out he was on the floor of the House of Delegates as the new gun law was passed, argued, "You're not stuck with it." The Democrats won, he said, by twisting arms.

Lollar used the gun law as a key example of why the state needs term limits on every office. Limiting the tenure of lawmakers, he argued, would decrease partisanship and prevent gun rights from becoming a "wedge issue."

Both Lollar and Craig promised to work to overturn the new law if elected. Craig has proposed going even further to roll back certain gun laws that have been on the books for decades.

Each also promised to work against efforts to legalize marijuana in Maryland, with Hogan calling it "crazy," George calling it a "pipe dream" and Lollar offering his opinion on legal pot with brevity: "No."

Later in the day, Hogan broadcast the first network television ad in the GOP contest, airing spots that have run on cable networks. While the Democrats have spent over $4 million on television ads so far, the lower-dollar Republican race has not been fought on the airwaves.

Early voting centers across the state opened Thursday, and registered voters can cast ballots from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day through June 19. The primary election is June 24.

The Republican forum taped Thursday will air at 7 a.m. Sunday on Washington's NBC4 and online at NBCwashington.com.

ecox@baltsun.com

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