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An early edge for Ehrlich's rivals

Sun Reporters

One year before the 2006 statewide election, RepublicanGov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. trails his twochief rivals, with many voters approving the incumbent'sjob performance but signaling a desireto return the state to its traditional Democraticroots.

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

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M.Duncan has a 5 percentage point lead on the governorbut has gained little ground on the mayorin the weeks after the two Democrats' formal entryinto the governor's race.

In a primary matchup, O'Malley leads Duncan,42 percent to 23 percent, a 19-point spread thathas barely budged despite the executive's highprofilecampaign announcement and statewidetours. In an April Sun poll, O'Malley had a20-point edge on Duncan.

Ehrlich's job approval ratings have improvedslightly since the end of this spring's acrimoniousGeneral Assembly session, with 50 percent approvingand 33 percent disapproving of his performance.

But his standing in the governor's race comesamid a national wave of discontent with his party, fed by scandals such as theCIA leak case, the indictment ofRep. Tom DeLay and criticism ofthe government's response toHurricane Katrina.

Recent surveys have shown thatBush's popularity in Maryland isat an all-time low. When Ehrlichentered the governor's race fouryears ago, the president's popularitywasnear its peak.

Pollster Keith Haller, presidentof Bethesda-based Potomac Inc.,said the governor's prospectsmaybe at a nadir because of the saggingfortunes of the Bush White House and recent news media attentiondevoted to O'Malley andDuncan as they have started theircampaigns.

The governor has not formallyannounced that he is seeking reelection,and his aides have saidhe will likely not begin campaigningin earnest until a Democraticnominee emerges -- possibly aslate as September.

"It's still his race to win or lose,"Haller said, adding that withthree years of governing underhis belt, Ehrlich needs a new messageto capture voters' imaginationduring bad times for hisparty.

"He has yet to make his publiccase for his incumbency," Hallersaid. "He's always been able towin support through a very likablepersona. He's had successreaching out to blue-collar Democraticaudiences in the Baltimoresuburbs, but he may want to revisitthe basic strategy in light ofnational events, which may be alittle bit of a tidal wave effect thathas swept the entire landscape inthe country."

The survey of 1,008 likely voterswas conducted Oct. 27 to Nov. 1and has a margin of error of 3.2percentage points. Questionsabout the Democratic primaryhave a margin of error of 4.6points.

In a matchup against O'Malley,Ehrlich's support from his Republicanbase has eroded slightlysince last spring, dropping from75 percent to 67 percent.

But Democrats, who outnumberRepublicans nearly 2 to 1 inMaryland and were key to Ehrlich's2002 victory, have closedranks behind O'Malley in the pastsix months, with 67 percent sayingthey would vote for the mayor,compared with 57 percent inApril. O'Malley also has a 20-pointlead among independents.

Ehrlich spokeswoman ShareeseN. DeLeaver questioned the validityof the poll's results.

"It's hard to take these pollnumbers seriously when the governoris currently in litigationwith The Sun," DeLeaver said, referringto a lawsuit the newspaperfiled last year over the governor'sdecision to bar state executivebranch employees fromspeaking to a Sun reporter and acolumnist.

"The governor is confident thatwhen it actually counts, the numberswill be less skewed andpresent a more accurate depictionofMaryland's electorate," shesaid.

During the 2002 election, PotomacInc. --using the same methodology--predicted Ehrlich's victoryand had him erasing the earlylead of former Democratic Lt.Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsendby July of that year.

O'Malley campaign managerJonathan Epstein said he thinksvoters are responding to themayor's record of accomplishments.

"We are pleased that Martin stillholds a lead over Ehrlich, but ourcampaign will take nothing forgranted as we get out our messagethat a stronger Maryland cando better, especially when itcomes to leadership," Epsteinsaid.

Duncan campaign managerScott Arceneaux said the pollshows there is "no difference inelectability" between Duncanand O'Malley in a matchupagainst Ehrlich.

"We know the challenges Dougfaces," Arceneaux said. "We needto get our name out; we need toget Doug better known in the Baltimoreregion. That's what we'vebeen doing for six months andwill continue to do."

Several poll respondents saidthey once held a positive view ofEhrlich but had soured on himbecause they found his policiesless moderate than they expected.

Vanessa Harris, 40, a Democratfrom Baltimore County, said shevoted for Ehrlich when he was inCongress but would not do soagain.

"He cut a lot of programs, I tellyou that," she said. "As he's gottenfurther up the ladder, he hasreally proved to be a Republican."

Robert Herbert, a Republicanfrom Sykesville, said he voted forEhrlich in 2002 because he likedthe idea of a change in leadershipin Annapolis after decades ofDemocratic governors. But hesaid he's been disappointed withwhat he sees as an administrationfocused on public relations, notgovernance.

"I really don't see him doinganything constructive. He'll makehis face in any public event, he'llmake his presence known, andthen when you hear him speak,it's like, 'What did he say?Where'she coming from?' " said Herbert, aretired Department of Defenseworker.

But Ehrlich supporters said theythink the governor is a straightshooter who has been thwartedby Democrats who never gavehim a chance.

"I just think he's honest," saidRobert Baynes, 77, a Democratfrom Bowleys Quarters. "He's doinga good job -- better than wehad in there for eight years."

Against Duncan, Ehrlich doesslightly better among Democratsand Republicans but much betteramong independents, trailing thecounty executive among thatgroup by 3 percentage points.

O'Malley showed a significantbroadening of support beyondthe "Big Three" heavily Democraticjurisdictions (BaltimoreCity, and Montgomery and PrinceGeorge's counties) that securedGov. Parris N. Glendening's victoriesin the 1990s.

In 2002, Ehrlich proved thatthose three jurisdictions were nolonger enough for Democrats, ashe carried the Baltimore suburbsby large margins. But O'Malleyshowed strong support in thoseareas in the newsurvey, reflectinga return to the party candidateformany voters.

The poll found the Democrattrailing Ehrlich by 1 percentagepoint in Baltimore County and 2points in Howard and Anne Arundelcounties, jurisdictions thatlaunched the governor to victoryfour years ago. The governor'slead in the rural counties is 9 percentagepoints.

Geography also appears to behurting Duncan. MontgomeryCounty politicians have traditionallyhad difficulty attracting attentionoutside the Washingtonsuburbs.

Duncan has worked to counterthat liability through aggressivecampaigning in the Baltimore region,but the poll shows that theBaltimore-Washington dividehurts him more than it doesO'Malley. In the Democratic primary,the mayor holds a 43-pointlead in the Baltimore area, butDuncan has just a 7-point edge intheWashington suburbs.

In particular, Duncan showssigns of weakness in his homecounty, despite serving as its chiefexecutive for the past 11 years. Heleads O'Malley in Montgomery,37-20, with 41 percent undecided.O'Malley, by contrast, has a60-point lead in Baltimore City,with 18 percent undecided.

Several poll respondents fromthe Baltimore area said theyaren't wedded to O'Malley in theprimary but don't know enoughabout Duncan. The county executivealso has a lot of room to gainground: The number of primaryvoters who say they are undecidedhas climbed steadily overthe past year, from 23 percent inJanuary to 34 percent now.

Another reason for O'Malley'ssurge against Ehrlich appears tobe his support among blacks.

Ehrlich has not ceded the blackvote, which traditionally trendsDemocratic. He chose Michael S.Steele as his running mate in2002, and Steele became the firstAfrican-American elected to statewideoffice in Maryland. The governorhas worked to improve thestate's minority contracting programand made regular outreachefforts to blacks.

But O'Malley, who has twicebeen elected mayor of a majorityblack city, has seen his supportamong African-Americans grow.In January, he held a 38-pointlead among blacks, but now themargin is 57 percentage points.

O'Malley and Duncan are consideringblack running mates,and party officials have said theywant to see amore diverse Democraticticket, factors that coulddrive up African-American turnout.

But, as politicians often pointout, the poll represents a snapshotand is of limited use in predictingthe results of an election ayear away, particularly beforeEhrlich has begun campaigning.

When The Sun conducted a similarpoll four years ago, it alsofound a solid lead for the frontrunnerfor the Democratic nomination,Lt. Gov. Kathleen KennedyTownsend, in a matchup againstEhrlich. She led him by 15 points.

Sun reporter Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

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