O'Malley hopes early bird gets political worm


Tomorrow morning in Prince George's County, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce Del. Anthony G. Brown as his running mate in Maryland's 2006 gubernatorial election.

O'Malley's selection comes almost a year before Election Day, and fully nine months ahead of the September Democratic primary. The early decision to offer Brown the lieutenant governor's spot is a bold move that may set a precedent not only in Maryland politics - where Democrats, in the unfamiliar position of running against an incumbent Republican governor, need to shake things up - but nationally as well. Of course, all "bold" moves come with risks, but this one seems to offer more advantages than risks.

The most obvious advantage is that the time during which the ticket can double-dip - with two candidates, two spouses, two sets of fundraisers, two sets of campaign stumpers and two sets of volunteers - expands greatly, from just a few months during the late stages of the general election.

And, because there are inevitably some bruised egos or upset partisan elements that preferred other candidates, picking a running mate early allows O'Malley more time for mending political fences.

In 2002, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, despite running unchallenged in the Democratic primary, waited very late to put party-switcher and retired Naval Academy President Adm. Charles R. Larson on her ticket. The move divided Democrats around the state, but with November looming Townsend didn't have time to repair the breach.

In Maryland, where Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is running for the U.S. Senate, O'Malley's move has the added twist of leaving Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. running for re-election without a running mate while one of his challengers already has one. The move also seemed to flat-foot Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who quickly mentioned some names and said he plans to announce his running mate in early 2006.

Another advantage of Brown's selection is that it quells a lot of the legitimate grumbling among Maryland Democrats, including many black leaders, about the historical absence of black Democratic nominees for statewide office. The move may even provide some political cover for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, in the event he beats former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Senate nominees, after all, don't get to name running mates to balance their ticket.

Finally, the early selection of Brown puts a little added pressure on Ehrlich, who will be hard-pressed to duplicate his brilliant choice of Steele in 2002 - though Ehrlich is somewhat shielded this time around because his political partner is staying a ticket mate via the Senate race. In essence, Ehrlich will have two running mates: Steele in the Senate race and whomever he eventually chooses as his new lieutenant governor.

Should this strategy prove successful for O'Malley and propel him to victory in the primary, don't be surprised if it becomes something of a trend. Already, in Illinois, two Republicans who were perceived to be trailing a front-runner for the 2006 gubernatorial nomination decided to join forces as a ticket, hoping the "two for the price of one" argument in the primary can springboard them both.

On the national level, this strategy of an early running mate has been tried just once in the modern era. In 1976, Ronald Reagan, desperate to shake a "he's too conservative" image in his primary challenge to sitting President Gerald Ford, named the moderate Pennsylvania Republican Richard Schweicker. Although Reagan lost the primaries, he certainly made Ford sweat for the nomination. No other sitting president has come as close as Ford to losing his party's nomination.

Fast-forward to 2008 and one could envision some major party presidential candidate employing this strategy, particularly if he finds himself stuck in second or third place behind an apparently insurmountable front-runner. Of course, this idea could also work for a perceived front-runner who can't seem to seal the deal because of some intra-party dispute.

Consider: Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodman Clinton of New York and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona are their respective parties' early 2008 front-runners. But both are thought to have some major hurdle that could keep them from the White House.

Maybe Clinton decides to quell the liberals in her party upset about her Iraq position by naming a Sen. Russell D. Feingold as her running mate. Or maybe, she decides political balance is a necessity and convinces a Virginia Gov. Mark Warner or Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack to come aboard.

Then again, two of the Democrats chasing Clinton might be frustrated that the dynamic campaign duo of Hillary and Bill is very hard to overcome, and they need help, and a Warner and Feingold team up as a ticket and begin campaigning in the primaries. The scenarios are endless.

On the Republican side, McCain is purportedly going to have a hard time convincing social conservatives to get on board. Well, maybe he does the opposite of Reagan and picks a more rank-and-file conservative Republican as his running mate and does it during the primaries to seal the nomination. McCain's running-mate selection is going to have added importance because of his age in 2008 - he is 69.

Of course, adding a running mate early adds to the vetting process for the media and a candidate's opponents. And there are always land mines in any appointment process - just ask George McGovern, whose 1972 running mate had to be withdrawn. Then again, it's a risk governors and presidents have all the time in their jobs.

In Maryland, if Brown proves to be a poor candidate or something unpleasant about his background should surface, O'Malley would either have to weather these storms or, worse, suffer the political damage of replacing him. A Harvard-educated lawyer and Iraq veteran, Brown has a great biography but is still rather green. How quickly he matures into statewide material remains a big unknown. Then again, giving Brown more time to mature on the campaign trail can be seen as a positive.

Strategists all around the country, particularly those involved with 2008 presidential candidates, will be watching how this O'Malley-Brown experiment works in 2006. Some form of success - either victory in the primaries, victory in the general, or both - and it's sure to be copy-catted.

Thomas F. Schaller, UMBC associate professor of political science, is working on a book for Simon & Schuster on national Democratic strategy. Chuck Todd is editor in chief of The Hotline, National Journal's daily briefing on American politics.

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