State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh has opened up a clear lead over former Mayor Sheila Dixon as the mayor's race enters its final weeks, according to a new poll for The Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.
Pugh, who has gained support steadily over recent weeks, is the choice of 31 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, the poll shows. She's followed by Dixon, who is in second place with 25 percent after leading or being tied for first in previous polls. Lawyer Elizabeth Embry is a distant third with 9 percent.
"Senator Pugh is clearly the one in command now in this race," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, the Annapolis-based firm that conducted the poll. "She is leading and widening her lead."
The new poll results come as Pugh has spent about $600,000 on her campaign over the last two months — and has been the subject of harsh criticism from her rivals. The poll of 400 likely Democratic primary voters was conducted from April 1 to April 4. It has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.
The primary is April 26. Early voting begins next week.
Raabe noted that there is still time for movement in the race. The poll found 14 percent of likely voters are undecided. Of those who favor a candidate, 38 percent said they are open to changing their minds.
Dixon's backers remain much firmer in their support of the former mayor than Pugh's. Of Dixon's supporters, just 18 percent said they were open to considering other candidates. For Pugh, 49 percent said they could change their minds.
Many of the candidates have participated in the more than 40 mayoral forums that have been held across the city. Increasingly, Pugh has come under attack from rivals, including for receiving contributions from lobbyists and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and for posting an online ad in which a supporter says there's "too much talk of racism."
"Dixon's support seems to be solid and stable, but she doesn't seem able to add to that support," said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs. "That's why you see everyone hitting Pugh. You have all the other candidates attacking Pugh because they need her support to move up."
Samuel Fuller, 44, a bank examiner from Mayfield who was surveyed for the poll, said Dixon lost his vote years ago when she was found guilty of embezzlement and perjury while in office. He decided on Pugh within the last month.
"I like her integrity. I think she has the experience necessary to do the job," Fuller said. As for Dixon? "I don't think she's trustworthy," he said.
But William Lawrence, 36, a truck driver from Edmondson Village, said Dixon's strong performance as mayor outweighs her negatives. He praised her crime reduction initiatives — targeting "bad guys with guns" — and noted that more recreation centers and swimming pools were open under Dixon.
"When she was in office, our streets were a lot safer," Lawrence said. "You saw the police presence. They were everywhere. Things were moving in the right direction. There were more programs open and activities for the kids and after-school programs. Once we got a new mayor, what happened to all those programs?"
Voters who have made up their minds in the past two weeks have largely been going to Pugh, though Embry and Warnock have also picked up support, the poll shows. Nearly 40 percent of Embry's supporters chose her within the last two weeks.
Joseph Martorella, a 38-year-old grocer from Hampden, said he is choosing between Embry and Pugh, and leaning toward Embry. He said her performance at recent debates, her background as a prosecutor and her platform for fighting crime have helped convince him that she could be the right person to lead Baltimore.
"I have enjoyed her consistent message," he said.
In the poll, Pugh showed an ability to appeal to both white and black Baltimore Democratic primary voters. Dixon led Pugh among African-Americans — 35 percent to 31 percent — with Mosby a distant third. But Pugh had a sizable lead among white voters: 38 percent support Pugh, compared with 25 percent for Embry, 16 percent for Warnock and 8 percent for Dixon.
Both Embry and Warnock have struggled to gain support in the black community, the poll shows.
"Pugh is crossing over well into the white community," Raabe said. "Dixon is much less popular in the white community; Warnock and Embry are not able to pick up support in the African-American community. Pugh is the one leading candidate who is able to transcend."
Another dividing line between Pugh and Dixon supporters is their education. Voters with a college degree are more likely to back Pugh, while those without one are more likely to back Dixon. Embry and Warnock also are more popular among voters with a four-year degree.
Warnock has spent more than $1.6 million on his campaign in the past two months — including nearly $1.5 million of his own money.
His message has resonated with Angelo Sfondiles, 69, of Northeast Baltimore, who likes the way the businessman has created jobs and co-founded a charter school, the Green Street Academy.
"He's the non-politician of the field," Sfondiles said. "The other candidates are pretty much wedded to the ideas that have contributed to the problems confronting the city. Warnock, as an outsider and a businessman, can bring a fresh new look at the problems and can come up with new and better solutions."
Mosby supporter Michele Fuller, 50, a sales manager from Reservoir Hill, said she's supporting the first-term councilman for mayor because he's authentic and presents new ideas. Fuller is a neighbor of Mosby and his wife, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. She says the couple hasn't changed at all since winning elected office.
"I like the fact he is young and he has great ideas. As we think about moving the city forward, I think we need some young people who have a sense of community," Fuller said. "I knew him when he wasn't running for anything. They're good people. They're genuine people. They're committed to the city."
Stokes supporter Joyce Shade, 57, of Northeast Baltimore said he has been a good city councilman.
"He's made things work for me, and helped me with some issues," she said. "He already knows the city, and he's been very productive."
Three-fourths of those surveyed in the poll are 50 or older — a methodology Raabe said is consistent with past Democratic primary voting patterns in Baltimore. Both he and Hartley noted that a large youth surge could shake up the race.
The mayoral election is being held for the first time in a presidential election year, and an unexpectedly competitive race between former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could drive up turnout in the city's Democratic primary, Hartley said.
Even so, Raabe said, it's likely a two-person race for mayor with Pugh as the favorite. In the poll, Pugh was the second choice of 23 percent of voters, while Dixon was the second choice of 12 percent of voters — meaning that if supporters defect from other candidates, it's more likely to benefit Pugh.
But Raabe said a passionate group of supporters can help a candidate overcome tepid support if they turn out to the polls in large numbers.
"One should not discount the firmness of Dixon's support," he said. "There's still a chance Dixon can win. But it's hard to see a scenario where anyone else can surge to the forefront."
The poll also found optimism about the prospect for change in the city. Asked if the new mayor would be able to address pressing problems or if they are "just too difficult," three-quarters of respondents said the city's chief executive can make a difference.
In addition to the 13 Democrats, 16 other people are running for mayor, including five Republicans and three members of the Green Party. For decades, the winner of the Democratic primary has gone on to win the November general election.
While the deadline to register to vote at the polls on April 26 has passed, same-day registration is possible at voting centers during early voting, which runs April 14 to April 21.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.