An early edge for Ehrlich's rivals

One year before the 2006 statewide election, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. trails his two chief rivals, with many voters approving the incumbent's job performance but signaling a desire to return the state to its traditional Democratic roots.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley leads Ehrlich by 15 percentage points, 48 percent to 33 percent, according to a poll conducted for The Sun by the independent, nonpartisan firm Potomac Inc.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has a 5 percentage point lead on the governor but has gained little ground on the mayor in the weeks after the two Democrats' formal entry into the governor's race.

In a primary matchup, O'Malley leads Duncan, 42 percent to 23 percent, a 19-point spread that has barely budged despite the executive's highprofile campaign announcement and statewide tours. In an April Sun poll, O'Malley had a 20-point edge on Duncan.

Ehrlich's job approval ratings have improved slightly since the end of this spring's acrimonious General Assembly session, with 50 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving of his performance.

But his standing in the governor's race comes amid a national wave of discontent with his party, fed by scandals such as the CIA leak case, the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay and criticism of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Recent surveys have shown that Bush's popularity in Maryland is at an all-time low. When Ehrlich entered the governor's race four years ago, the president's popularitywas near its peak.

Pollster Keith Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., said the governor's prospectsmay be at a nadir because of the sagging fortunes of the Bush White House and recent news media attention devoted to O'Malley and Duncan as they have started their campaigns.

The governor has not formally announced that he is seeking reelection, and his aides have said he will likely not begin campaigning in earnest until a Democratic nominee emerges -- possibly as late as September.

"It's still his race to win or lose," Haller said, adding that with three years of governing under his belt, Ehrlich needs a new message to capture voters' imagination during bad times for his party.

"He has yet to make his public case for his incumbency," Haller said. "He's always been able to win support through a very likable persona. He's had success reaching out to blue-collar Democratic audiences in the Baltimore suburbs, but he may want to revisit the basic strategy in light of national events, which may be a little bit of a tidal wave effect that has swept the entire landscape in the country."

The survey of 1,008 likely voters was conducted Oct. 27 to Nov. 1 and has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. Questions about the Democratic primary have a margin of error of 4.6 points.

In a matchup against O'Malley, Ehrlich's support from his Republican base has eroded slightly since last spring, dropping from 75 percent to 67 percent.

But Democrats, who outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in Maryland and were key to Ehrlich's 2002 victory, have closed ranks behind O'Malley in the past six months, with 67 percent saying they would vote for the mayor, compared with 57 percent in April. O'Malley also has a 20-point lead among independents.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver questioned the validity of the poll's results.

"It's hard to take these poll numbers seriously when the governor is currently in litigation with The Sun," DeLeaver said, referring to a lawsuit the newspaper filed last year over the governor's decision to bar state executive branch employees from speaking to a Sun reporter and a columnist.

"The governor is confident that when it actually counts, the numbers will be less skewed and present a more accurate depiction ofMaryland's electorate," she said.

During the 2002 election, Potomac Inc. --using the same methodology-- predicted Ehrlich's victory and had him erasing the early lead of former Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend by July of that year.

O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein said he thinks voters are responding to the mayor's record of accomplishments.

"We are pleased that Martin still holds a lead over Ehrlich, but our campaign will take nothing for granted as we get out our message that a stronger Maryland can do better, especially when it comes to leadership," Epstein said.

Duncan campaign manager Scott Arceneaux said the poll shows there is "no difference in electability" between Duncan and O'Malley in a matchup against Ehrlich.

"We know the challenges Doug faces," Arceneaux said. "We need to get our name out; we need to get Doug better known in the Baltimore region. That's what we've been doing for six months and will continue to do."

Several poll respondents said they once held a positive view of Ehrlich but had soured on him because they found his policies less moderate than they expected.

Vanessa Harris, 40, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said she voted for Ehrlich when he was in Congress but would not do so again.

"He cut a lot of programs, I tell you that," she said. "As he's gotten further up the ladder, he has really proved to be a Republican."

Robert Herbert, a Republican from Sykesville, said he voted for Ehrlich in 2002 because he liked the idea of a change in leadership in Annapolis after decades of Democratic governors. But he said he's been disappointed with what he sees as an administration focused on public relations, not governance.

"I really don't see him doing anything constructive. He'll make his face in any public event, he'll make his presence known, and then when you hear him speak, it's like, 'What did he say?Where's he coming from?' " said Herbert, a retired Department of Defense worker.

But Ehrlich supporters said they think the governor is a straight shooter who has been thwarted by Democrats who never gave him a chance.

"I just think he's honest," said Robert Baynes, 77, a Democrat from Bowleys Quarters. "He's doing a good job -- better than we had in there for eight years."

Against Duncan, Ehrlich does slightly better among Democrats and Republicans but much better among independents, trailing the county executive among that group by 3 percentage points.

O'Malley showed a significant broadening of support beyond the "Big Three" heavily Democratic jurisdictions (Baltimore City, and Montgomery and Prince George's counties) that secured Gov. Parris N. Glendening's victories in the 1990s.

In 2002, Ehrlich proved that those three jurisdictions were no longer enough for Democrats, as he carried the Baltimore suburbs by large margins. But O'Malley showed strong support in those areas in the newsurvey, reflecting a return to the party candidate formany voters.

The poll found the Democrat trailing Ehrlich by 1 percentage point in Baltimore County and 2 points in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, jurisdictions that launched the governor to victory four years ago. The governor's lead in the rural counties is 9 percentage points.

Geography also appears to be hurting Duncan. Montgomery County politicians have traditionally had difficulty attracting attention outside the Washington suburbs.

Duncan has worked to counter that liability through aggressive campaigning in the Baltimore region, but the poll shows that the Baltimore-Washington divide hurts him more than it does O'Malley. In the Democratic primary, the mayor holds a 43-point lead in the Baltimore area, but Duncan has just a 7-point edge in theWashington suburbs.

In particular, Duncan shows signs of weakness in his home county, despite serving as its chief executive for the past 11 years. He leads O'Malley in Montgomery, 37-20, with 41 percent undecided. O'Malley, by contrast, has a 60-point lead in Baltimore City, with 18 percent undecided.

Several poll respondents from the Baltimore area said they aren't wedded to O'Malley in the primary but don't know enough about Duncan. The county executive also has a lot of room to gain ground: The number of primary voters who say they are undecided has climbed steadily over the past year, from 23 percent in January to 34 percent now.

Another reason for O'Malley's surge against Ehrlich appears to be his support among blacks.

Ehrlich has not ceded the black vote, which traditionally trends Democratic. He chose Michael S. Steele as his running mate in 2002, and Steele became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland. The governor has worked to improve the state's minority contracting program and made regular outreach efforts to blacks.

But O'Malley, who has twice been elected mayor of a majority black city, has seen his support among African-Americans grow. In January, he held a 38-point lead among blacks, but now the margin is 57 percentage points.

O'Malley and Duncan are considering black running mates, and party officials have said they want to see amore diverse Democratic ticket, factors that could drive up African-American turnout.

But, as politicians often point out, the poll represents a snapshot and is of limited use in predicting the results of an election a year away, particularly before Ehrlich has begun campaigning.

When The Sun conducted a similar poll four years ago, it also found a solid lead for the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in a matchup against Ehrlich. She led him by 15 points.

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.