If Maryland's gubernatorial election were held today, Mayor Martin O'Malley would be a major threat to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - including in the governor's home jurisdiction, according to the poll.
Although his approval ratings are as strong as ever at 56 percent, poll numbers show the Republican governor is vulnerable against two of the state's leading Democrats.
In an Ehrlich-O'Malley match, the vote spread was within the margin of error, making it a statistical dead heat. In a race with Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, 45 percent of voters said they would back the governor while 35 percent supported Duncan.
The poll also shows that 50 percent of voters would back O'Malley in a Democratic primary, compared with 23 percent for Duncan.
The gubernatorial race is 2 1/2 years away but O'Malley and Duncan have already shown interest in the Democratic nomination. The poll shows an Ehrlich-O'Malley contest could be one of the state's most exciting political battles in years.
"It would be one whale of a match-up - two Baltimore-area politicians going toe-to-toe," said Keith Haller, president of the polling company.
Haller said Ehrlich should be heartened by the strong approval rating, but the governor will need to make progress on his agenda to help keep him in office after the 2006 election.
It's Ehrlich's popularity that is giving him an edge over O'Malley and Duncan. Both of the Democrats are hampered by a lack of name recognition.
O'Malley's problem is in the Washington suburbs in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Duncan is not well known in the Baltimore region.
Paul Williams, of Silver Spring, epitomizes O'Malley's plight. The 74-year-old retiree from the U.S. Department of Housing approves of Ehrlich's performance, though he, like many Marylanders, wants to see improvement on the budget and in education. In a race between Ehrlich and O'Malley, the Montgomery County Democrat said he would vote for Ehrlich because "I don't know anything about the other person."
A third of voters in the Greater Washington area do not know who O'Malley is. But Williams said he would pick Duncan, his county executive, over Ehrlich and O'Malley.
By contrast, Susan Huppman, a Baltimore County artist, is among the 45 percent of women polled who said they would vote for O'Malley instead of Ehrlich should they faceoff for governor in 2006.
"I love O'Malley," said Huppman, 42, a painter who lives in Upperco. "He makes people feel, whether it's perception or reality, that he's sincere and that he's trying to do something for them. He's good at selling himself and his programs."