Poll indicates county could be election key

Howard County is up for grabs in this year's gubernatorial election, a Sun poll shows, and the results locally could be crucial statewide.

"We know we fought the JV team" in 2002, when then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend carried her party's banner, said state Republican Party Chairman John Kane.


This year, he said, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the expected Democratic candidate for governor, will "run harder and stronger. Howard is a major battleground for us."

Both parties have state staffers working in Howard, and both plan to turn out as many voters as possible.


The Sun's poll, conducted by Potomac Inc., showed 22 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions leaning heavily toward either Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., or O'Malley. Only Baltimore and Howard counties were close, with Ehrlich leading in both by narrow margins within the poll's margin of error.

In Howard, education and the economy were by far the top issues among those polled. While 59 percent of those surveyed in Howard said they approve of the job Ehrlich is doing, a slightly higher percentage (39 percent) said they have more confidence in Democrats to handle the most important problems in the state than they do Republicans (36 percent). Only 37 percent of Howard voters polled approve of the job President George W. Bush is doing.

The poll sampled 1,200 registered voters statewide, but only 83 voters in Howard, leading some to discount its validity.

"You can't tell a thing from 83 people. The margin of error is humongous," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a Howard resident.

Still, he said, "I would have guessed Howard County is pretty divided anyway."

Pollster Keith Haller conceded "you would not craft a campaign strategy" based on the poll's results in Howard alone, but he said it does reveal "a trend line -- where things are moving."

The party breakdown of those polled matched the general voter registration, he said, though the margin of error with such a small local sample is plus or minus 9.8 percent.

"No question in the governor's race that Howard is on the bubble and is going to be fair ground for both candidates. It's more like a bellwether county for the entire state," Haller said, predicting that Howard residents likely will "be bombarded by the state campaigns because you are on the cusp.


Eight years ago, Howard voters gave Democratic incumbent Gov. Parris N. Glendening 53 percent of the vote to 46.5 percent for Republican challenger Ellen Sauerbrey. Four years ago, Ehrlich took victory in Howard with a 55 percent margin to Townsend's 44 percent.

Both sides are aware that Glendening beat Sauerbrey by just over 6,000 votes statewide in 1994 -- and Sauerbrey won in Howard by 5,268 votes -- which means even a small victory margin in a small county can be critical.

Partisan passions run deep in Howard this year, too. Republicans criticize O'Malley for Baltimore's chronically poor school performance, while Democrats hit Ehrlich as too closely aligned with Bush's unpopular policies.

"He's a '94 congressman, at the elbow of [former House Speaker] Newt Gingrich, who's brought home that [Karl] Rove-Bush type of rhetoric," said Tony McGuffin, Howard's Democratic Party chairman.

Brian Harlin, chairman of the county Republicans, said, "I understand people's feelings at a national level about the party -- people come down on either side of the [Iraq] war." But people agree, he contends, that Ehrlich is doing "a very good job."

"They may attack Ehrlich on being Republican, but he's done a lot of good stuff for the state," Harlin said.


Elizabeth Francis, 78, of Ellicott City, a retired teacher and tutor with grandchildren attending Baltimore schools, was among those surveyed. She is disturbed about how city schools are run and plans to vote for Ehrlich, she said.

"We need more of a two-party system. I think it's been one-sided for a long time." A Republican, she said politics has become too personal and not enough about issues.

"I want issues. I felt Bob Ehrlich is a breath of fresh air," and "a very honest man," she said.

Democrats in the General Assembly are obstructionists, she said. "No matter what the governor wants, they aren't going to do it. They're not willing to do it for the state of Maryland," she said.

But Dennis Weyker, 36, a Columbia Democrat contacted in the poll, said, "You probably couldn't pay me to vote for Ehrlich."

Weyker, a computer worker and part-time teacher, objects to the governor's vetoes of bills such as minimum-wage legislation and the so-called "Wal-Mart bill" that forces companies with at least 10,000 employees to pay a minimum amount of revenues for their health care. He also criticized the governor's decision to ban state employees from speaking to Sun reporter David Nitkin and then-columnist Michael Olesker.


"He's not the person I want to be holding the job," Weyker said of Ehrlich.

Republican officials such as Kane and Bo Harmon, Ehrlich's campaign manager, stress the state of Baltimore's schools as a negative for O'Malley.

"Education is a top issue for Howard County voters," Harmon said. "The governor has improved test scores all around the state. ... Do we want to risk those improvements by switching to someone whose schools in some cases have lower than a 4 percent pass rate?"

"That's simplistically idiotic," said Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat running for House of Delegates. Democrats said Ehrlich is no more responsible for Howard's good schools than O'Malley is for decades of academic problems in Baltimore.

"The governor is using it as a political weapon to attack Martin O'Malley," said Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley campaign spokesman. O'Malley and Ehrlich share the same authority over schools, he said -- the power to appoint school board members.

Democratic leaders, however, are optimistic about their prospects in Howard this year, fueled partly by gains in voter registration since 2002.


According to county elections board figures, Democrats have gained 11.6 percent in registrations, compared with an 8.5 percent gain for the GOP. Registered Democrats number 81,763, compared with 61,234 Republicans. The board listed 34,834 independents and fringe party members.

Independent voters made up the fastest-growing group -- a nearly 30 percent jump over four years. They now make up nearly a fifth of all Howard voters.

"Howard is more in play, I think because of the number of independents," Kane said.

David Paulson, spokesman for the state Democrats, said the party intends to "be very, very energetic in Howard County," targeting "fall-off voters" -- people who vote in presidential elections but tend to miss state and local contests. He said Howard should be fertile territory given its success locally, with a Democratic county executive and a majority of Democrats in the County Council and representing Howard in the General Assembly.

"This is a traditionally Democratic county," said McGuffin.

Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley's campaign, said the mayor soon will open a Howard campaign office -- part of his strategy not to concentrate efforts in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince Georges counties, the traditional Democratic strongholds.


"That's not the campaign we're running," Abbruzzese said. "We understand how important Howard County is."

Kane said the Republicans "have a very strong grass-roots organization in Howard County whose goal is to communicate the governor's success. People catch on to that message."