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Moving toward good enough

THE CAMPAIGN, he told a friend, was like a rock in his shoe. He wanted to shake it out. But he couldn't until Tuesday night after 66 percent of Baltimore voters chose him over an opponent whose approximation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson made him seem capable of doing damage in the inevitable game of perceptions. It was needless anxiety.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's win over Andrey Bundley, the principal of Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, nevertheless led to spin city, where observers were asked if 66 percent was enough to make Mr. O'Malley a strong candidate for governor against the incumbent Republican, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

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The answer should have been, "Yes, of course." Or, perhaps, "More than enough." Aren't we talking landslide here? Aren't we talking interim report card on a big-city mayor where the challenges require tough decisions that make many constituencies angry? Aren't we talking 66 percent in a predominantly black city where some irreducible minimum of voters want a black mayor? But didn't Mr. O'Malley do quite well in the predominantly black areas of the city? Almost necessarily so, since he had 66 percent of the total vote.

But, in a way, the numbers don't matter. What matters more is how the mayor won.

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Famous (locally) for a computerized system of governmental accountability - and for popping off profanely and even uncontrollably - Candidate O'Malley campaigned with discipline and the stage presence of a performer, which he is.

He got angry publicly only a few times, the notable instance coming during a mayoral debate at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. When a questioner called Baltimore a broken city, the mayor bristled. This, he said, is a city where test scores are up and violent crime is down. He went on to cite other evidence of improvement. He was adroitly echoing his campaign theme: Better isn't good enough. If he was angry, it was not at anyone. It was for or on behalf of the city. It was candidate evolution.

No one should forget - Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Governor Ehrlich included - that Martin O'Malley and his circle of family and friends are a juggernaut. If turnout was 7 percent or 8 percent higher than the 28 percent predicted by city election officials, it may have been attributable to the organizational skills of brother Peter O'Malley. He managed a few years ago to win the Republican nomination for his underdog candidate father, Tom, in a Montgomery County race for state's attorney.

Democrats know. And while holding Mr. Duncan in high regard, they are drawn to the skill and charisma of Mr. O'Malley. They report polling figures taken recently by a variety of officials in the areas where Governor Ehrlich built his victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. His poll numbers are more than good among men and women. People who parse these measurements for a living don't hide their enthusiasm.

He'll be running - surely he will run - against a sitting governor actively working to solidify his base and to win wider approval via uncompromising adherence to "no new taxes" campaign promises. He's got his own zealous followers and another dimension of support that comes with incumbency.

So it's easy to see why the ambitious Mr. O'Malley may be eager to get the stone of campaigning behind him and return to the Sisyphean rock of running a broken city.

At some point, he knows, he will need a platform of accomplishment - accomplishment built in the usual way with a lower crime rate, lower unemployment, lower murder rate, effectively recycled vacant houses, hope for the thousands of ex-felons who return to the city each year. He will need more proof that life in Baltimore got a little closer to good enough while Martin O'Malley was mayor. It's more of a job than anyone could accomplish in three years, but it's a job he said he wanted.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM and a Sunday columnist for The Sun.


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