Exiting his campaign-mobile for yet another appearance in the final sprint before Tuesday's election, Gov. Martin O'Malley asked aides a last question: "Do we have hope and dreams?"
It seemed a strangely lofty query at a point when the campaign was all about the logistics — getting the candidate to multiple stops across the state to rally Democrats to the polls. And indeed, O'Malley's aim turned out to be more prosaic than poetic: making sure someone cued up the song he often uses to herald his arrival, Bruce Springsteen's "In the Land of Hope and Dreams."
For all the uplift of the title, the candidate who emerges to its thumping chords is a grounded one. The O'Malley running for re-election is disciplined and detail-oriented, tightly on message and ubiquitous on the airwaves and on the campaign trail — waving at intersections, shaking hands at subway stops, repeating some variant of his stump speech to crowds numbering from a handful to more than 1,000.
"To lose your focus can be potentially fatal," he says on this particular day as his campaign RV rolls through the Eastern Shore on one of the carefully scripted tours designed to tout his accomplishments in office and encourage turnout.
Gone, at least for public consumption, is the younger politician who, first as a Baltimore City Councilman and then as mayor, could be combative and occasionally profane. And gone, too, are the photos of him wearing a muscle shirt to front O'Malley's March, his Celtic rock band. (The group did play last weekend at a couple of fundraisers, but they were closed to the press.)
In their place is a more serious 47-year-old who has methodically developed a loyal political network that, come election time, serves him well. At campaign events, he is frequently in the company of local Democratic officials, mayors and county executives who can attest to how he has taken care of their jurisdictions. During the busy midterm election year, he drew appearances from both President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
He runs for re-election in a year when the dismal economy and anxiety over the future have many voters in a sour, anti-government, anti-incumbent mood — especially when those incumbents are Democrats. In other words: the kind of climate that should have benefited his opponent, former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
But O'Malley approaches Election Day with what recent polls say is a double-digit lead over his GOP opponent. Some of that, no doubt, can be explained by Maryland's Democratic tilt and the many federal workers who live here and don't view big government as the bogeyman depicted elsewhere. But O'Malley also seems to be convincing many voters that, despite what might be happening nationwide, this is not a time to switch governors or break party ranks in Maryland.
On the stump, he has toed a fine line: acknowledging the damage done here by the national recession, but arguing that the state is coming out of it in better shape than other parts of the country.
Against the tide
This possibility of an emphatic Democratic win here as pundits predict a Republican tide swelling elsewhere finds welcome ears among Maryland Democrats.
"I'm optimistic," Rebekah Orenstein, a Westminster retiree and political activist, said as she left the Oct. 21 rally in Federal Hill featuring Clinton, O'Malley and the rest of the Democratic lineup.
"I just feel this sense of alienation in this Republican storm — a stranger in a strange land. I think the tea party has captured a lot of attention," she said of the conservative activists. "But I believe in the Democrats for this election. I've already voted absentee."
O'Malley has focused the final weeks of the campaign on making sure that other supporters make it official as well, either by voting early or getting to the polls on Tuesday. His has followed a packed schedule of events, with cups of tea and Halls cough drops for his overworked voice, and the kind of odd encounters that happen during campaign season. One evening, a former ambassador to Cyprus introduces himself at a Washington Metro stop; another day, it's a cage fighter outside a Goodwill store in Easton.
At this point, he is traveling to friendly parts of the state — Baltimore, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties — to shore up his base. But the campaign RV, nicknamed the "Katie" in a somewhat misguided tribute to O'Malley's wife, has also rolled to less-Democratic regions, such as the Eastern Shore, where the governor spent Monday stopping at several towns to rally the faithful and pick up endorsements from former Gov. Harry Hughes and former Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican.
By now, the gears of the campaign are turning smoothly: At the three debates with Ehrlich, he appeared well-prepped on the issues — to the exclusion, it seemed, of answering a lighter question about music — as was his staff, which churned out real-time fact checks and spin on points that arose.
On the campaign trail, it's been much the same. Inside the RV on this particular day, an aide tells O'Malley they're heading to Centreville, a necessary reminder given the multiple stops he makes as he crisscrosses almost every part of the state save its westernmost corner during this final push.
He's given a briefing book with information on the stop — names of local officials, the "hometown hero" whose accomplishments he will laud, other fun facts to know and tell about the town itself, and any gubernatorial largesse of which voters should be reminded before they head to the polls.
"Charlie Rhodes," O'Malley murmurs, noting the police chief as he scans the pages, commits the info to memory and tests out what he might say. "Oldest courthouse. … Teaches at Centreville Middle. … We provided 37 percent increased funding for schools. … They've raised test scores. … In the toughest of times, a 13 percent reduction in violent crime."
And then it's showtime.
O'Malley hits the ground with localized small talk ("So is this true? So is this the oldest courthouse in continuous use?") before hitting all his talking points (education funding, tuition freeze, crab moratorium, health care for kids, broadband Internet for rural areas).
Dee Walls, who welcomed O'Malley into her apparel and gift shop, Serendipidee, as he toured the downtown, said afterward that she hadn't decided whether to vote for him as she had in 2006, but seemed to be leaning toward it. She can look from the door of her 5-year-old store and see vacant storefronts in both directions, reflecting the still-struggling economy that makes her anxious about the future.
"It's tough, but we're hanging in there," said Walls, 54, a registered Democrat. "I'm looking for somebody who isn't afraid to make a decision for the everyday people. We shouldn't have to spend our lives, at my age, worrying about how we're going to spend the golden years."
That uncertainty makes Walls a bit reluctant to vote against the incumbent.
"A lot of times, it's hard to take somebody out that's already in there," she said. "Given the right amount of time, I think he can continue and do some more good."
In heavily Democratic, politically engaged Bethesda, O'Malley gets a mostly warm reception as he shakes hands with commuters at a Metro stop.
"I think he's done an astonishingly good job during extraordinarily bad times," said Virginia Mecklenburg, an art historian headed home from her job at a Washington museum.
In this mostly affluent part of the state, the word "taxes" doesn't necessarily send voters running away, screaming in horror.
"We expect excellent services here — schools, fire, police, food safety," Mecklenburg said. "We want them to all be at a very high standard, and the reality is that costs money."
In many ways, O'Malley has run a campaign that flies in the face of current conventional wisdom: at a time when no-new-taxes is a sure-fire rallying cry in many quarters, he defends raising the sales and other taxes and refuses to pledge he won't increase them in the future. The new revenue, he said, allowed the state to make long-term investments in education that will help Maryland emerge from the recession with a work force better prepared than states that cut such funds.
"I think that we have a better understanding than most states do of what it will take to make our state a winner in this economy," O'Malley said. "That allows people in our state to make a balanced judgment about that penny sales tax increase."
And at a time when some Democratic candidates are running away from Obama, O'Malley has embraced him. Though beleaguered elsewhere, the president remains popular in Maryland, drawing an enthusiastic crowd for a rally with O'Malley in Bowie early last month.
The governor is particularly quick to ally himself with Obama when speaking to African-Americans, the group that has proved most loyal to the president. Speaking to a mostly black crowd last weekend in Prince George's County, O'Malley quoted Obama's line about Republicans "driving our economy into the ditch" and linked it to his own campaign slogan.
"In order for President Obama to be successful in driving us out of that ditch, we have to move Maryland forward," he said. "I need your help, the president needs your help."
The pitch is much the same in majority Democratic and heavily African-American Baltimore, although in the city, perhaps, he has a more complicated relationship with residents who have known if not always loved him as first their mayor and then their governor.
Really an issue?
For some, he remains the mayor whose zero-tolerance crime-fighting policy jailed thousands of residents, mostly young black men, sometimes on charges that ultimately were dismissed. It is an issue that Ehrlich has tried to use to his benefit, although polls show that African-Americans still overwhelmingly support O'Malley.
"He has matured since then," said Wayne Alfurqan, a Northeast Baltimore resident who attended a recent event in which O'Malley and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, picked up an endorsement from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Alfurqan, who works for a green energy company, says he hasn't always voted for O'Malley — but he will this time.
Kareem Aziz, a Randallstown resident who joined a get-out-the-vote rally there recently, said O'Malley's zero-tolerance policy "did bother me." Still, he believes the blame should be spread around.
"Ehrlich was governor when O'Malley was mayor," said Aziz, a research director and professor at Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore.
"Plus, he hired O'Malley's police commissioner. He became the head of Ehrlich's police," he said, referring to Edward Norris, who became the Maryland State Police superintendent before pleading guilty to federal corruption and tax charges. "Then that cat went to jail."
For most voters, though, it is O'Malley's tenure as governor that will be the more important part of his resume as they head to the polls. Being the incumbent governor on Election Day has its privileges — and not only because O'Malley benefits from the usual security detail and palace guard that surround any chief executive and ease his travel through the state.
Throughout the campaign, he was able to hold official, gubernatorial events that surely didn't hurt his political efforts. In recent days, he was able to tout the state's $72.2 million purchase of new medevac helicopters, as well as celebrate with city and federal officials the impending construction of a new $150 million Social Security building in Northwest Baltimore.
Now, he just has to make sure what he's done both in office and on the campaign trail spurs voters to turn out on Tuesday. Many already have, and O'Malley joined them at a polling place in the Pimlico neighborhood of Baltimore to cast his ballot on the first day of early voting.
Ronni Jackson, 37, was among the 400 some people who had flocked to vote by midafternoon when O'Malley got there. She is looking for work, having lost a job in medical billing in July, which meant she's had the time to watch all three gubernatorial debates, which won O'Malley her vote.
"I like his stand on education, and not raising college tuition," she said. "And I like that he's giving education money to Baltimore City, where it needs to be."
O'Malley election timeline
1990: Lost state Senate election in District 43 to incumbent John A. Pica by 44 votes
1991: Won one of three Baltimore City Council seats in District 3
1995: Won one of three Baltimore City Council seats in District 3
1999: Defeated David F. Tufaro in Baltimore mayoral race
2004: Defeated Elbert R. Henderson in Baltimore mayoral race
2006: Defeated Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in gubernatorial race with 52.7 percent of vote