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Ulman seems invulnerable, but is he?

Howard County's ambitious young County Executive Ken Ulman — a well-funded, relatively popular incumbent in a Democratic-leaning county — has all the conventional advantages in his re-election campaign against Republican Trent Kittleman, but in an unusual political climate of voter anger, it's not certain that will be enough.

Ulman, 36, a liberal Democrat who strongly backs Gov. Martin O'Malley, presides over a county with Maryland's top-rated schools, the state's lowest unemployment rate at 5.2 percent, and the prospect of thousands of high paying defense and cyber security jobs, which are already beginning to spark further development along the U.S. 1 corridor.

Kittleman, 64, a thoughtful, engaging candidate with a long political pedigree, agrees that Howard is doing well but warns that county leaders must adapt to new economic realities, cut spending and pay down looming retirement debts or face a future fiscal crisis. Ulman, she says, just doesn't get that.

"I see a sea change in the economics of this country," Kittleman told a group of county Realtors at a candidates' forum last month.

"Stop the spending. That's the first step," she said. "It bothers me a lot that my opponent doesn't have a realization of what can happen" in the next recession.

Ulman argues that it's not that simple.

"We've got a great thing going here in Howard County," he said. "It's very easy to sit up here and talk about spending without any specifics about where we would cut."

People move to Howard from as far away as Korea just for the schools, county officials are fond of saying. To cut services that attract those high earners would be tampering with a successful formula, Ulman argues.

An energetic, outgoing man who emphasizes stronger police and fire protection, boosting economic development, while also pushing to make Howard a national leader on environmental and health care issues, Ulman also hasn't raised general tax rates in four years, nor dipped into the county's Rainy Day Fund. As a candidate, he's collected over 20 times the amount of campaign cash as his opponent. In the last report, Ulman had $713,424 left to spend, compared with Kittleman's $23,297.

Kittleman is a former top Ehrlich administration transportation official and lawyer with a well-known last name, but she has never held elective office and is running a decidedly low-profile campaign. This year, she feels her low-budget, outsider, grassroots campaign style will help her woo disaffected voters.

Howard has 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, and in addition to the county executive's job, Democrats hold four of five County Council seats and eight of 11 General Assembly seats in Howard. Ulman won the top job in 2006 with 52 percent of the vote in a three-way race, giving him a 10,000-vote margin. He outpolled Gov. Martin O'Malley in the county by about 1,500 votes in that election.

"People feel really good about what's going on in Howard County," Ulman said, and he has followed the classic incumbent campaign strategy of making his daily work as executive his main public sales pitch to voters.

To help boost Kittleman's efforts, a Republican County Council candidate released results from a late September poll showing her just 8 points behind Ulman, though Ulman strongly disputes the poll's accuracy, countering with one he took a month earlier showing him 33 points ahead, at 62-29.

But Kittleman, the widow of former State Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, and stepmother to Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, said her low-profile campaign has "the essence" of Ellen Sauerbrey's near-upset in the 1994 gubernatorial race against Democrat Parris Glendenning.

"It's the kind of campaign that my husband always ran," she said. "A quiet campaign where you're out among the voters. My sense is that there's this sense of passion. The motivation is helping us." But there's more working for her, she said.

"The reason I will win is because of the year. Four years ago everyone who was Republican lost because of George Bush, and he wasn't even running," she said. As a qualified candidate who has served in governmental executive positions and helped run businesses, she expects to benefit from the reverse of that trend, she said.

Donald F. Norris, professor and chair of the department of public policy at UMBC and a Howard resident, discounts the Republicans' hopes.

"Trent is engaging in wishful thinking. A Sauerbrey type won't resonate well in the wealthiest and most well educated county in the state — except among the GOP base." He feels the O'Malley campaign, which has shown strength in pulling away from Republican opponent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in recent polls, will also help Ulman bring out Democratic voters.

The recent poll showing Kittleman to be competitive is important, argued Patrick Gonzales, the pollster who conducted the survey, because Republican turnout in the Maryland primary last month was up 26 percent over 2006 while 19 percent fewer Democrats showed up to vote. Even shaving those numbers for the general election shows that Republicans have a good chance in Howard this year. "If anything, I'm being way too optimistic for Democrats," he said.

The poll of 381 people by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies, a firm that has done polls on a variety of subjects for years, showed Kittleman at 41 percent with Ulman at 49 percent. Gonzales said he sees "a Republican tsunami coming. Howard County will have some eye-opening results on Election Day," he said.

His poll included 46 percent Democrats and 40 percent Republicans with 13.6 percent independents. County voter registration figures show 48.3 percent Democrats vs. 31 percent Republicans with about 20 percent independents. Fred Yang, Ulman's pollster, said the difference is important.

"The turnout scenario the Republicans have presented is simply not realistic," Yang said, adding that the GOP numbers are revealing, however. "Even in the worst turnout that can be imagined, he [Ulman] still wins convincingly." Yang also said Ulman's job approval rating remained 69 percent, with just 13 percent disapproving.

With very little money, Kittleman waves at motorists every morning, knocks on doors, sometimes using her Segway scooter, and participates in as many forums as she can. Ulman, a strong supporter of a massive 30-year redevelopment proposed for central Columbia, told the Realtors that "we're all in this together." He said Thursday that the new GOP poll doesn't alarm him.

"We're really feeling great," he said. "We're getting a great response" from voters.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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