One of the candidates for governor has devoted most of his time on the stump lately to trumpeting his record in revitalizing Baltimore, but it's not Mayor Martin O'Malley.
In speech after speech, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is talking about his efforts to get more historic tax credits for the city, to spur redevelopment beyond Baltimore's "islands of prosperity," to expand drug treatment and, above all, to improve education for Baltimore schoolchildren.
The most recent two television ads of his campaign focus on Baltimore City schools, and in the latest he looks into the camera and pledges to do "whatever it takes to put every child on a path to success right away."
Ehrlich has ramped up his appearances in the city recently, visiting Park Heights and East Baltimore and speaking to Baptist ministers and Jewish senior citizens. But he's also talking about the city when he goes to the suburbs, even in parts of the state far removed from the city's orbit.
When he went to Leisure World, a huge retirement community in Montgomery County, to discuss senior issues, he actually spent most of his time - and got his biggest positive reaction - talking about the city schools.
"We don't cede one inch anywhere in this state, from Prince George's County to East North Avenue," Ehrlich said after a stop at the Baltimore Museum of Art this week, referring to the headquarters of the city school administration.
"I'm a Baltimore kid," said Ehrlich, a Republican who grew up in Arbutus in Baltimore County and attended the prestigious Gilman School in the city on scholarship. "What happens to Baltimore is very relevant to what happens to the state of Maryland."
Ehrlich's strategy could produce multiple benefits. It could undercut O'Malley's appeal among suburban and rural voters by directly challenging his record as a manager, and could also appeal to any city voters who, seven years into the O'Malley administration, have soured on the mayor.
If Ehrlich can cut into O'Malley's margin in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, it will be more difficult for O'Malley to win statewide.
A spokesman for the Democrat called Ehrlich's election-year focus on Baltimore disingenuous. The governor has spent less on drug treatment and police protection in the city than his predecessor and has done nothing for the schools but pick fights with the city, O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said.
"He tries using the city as a prop when he's trying to look like a compassionate conservative," Kearney said. "That's about it."
But when Ehrlich talks about the city school system in the suburbs, he gets a big reaction from his generally white and conservative audiences. He said that historically such voters have been turned off by talk of city issues, but not anymore.
"As the suburbs become wealthier, more prosperous, there's an even greater concern about where their tax dollars are being spent," Ehrlich said. "That's why there is so much concern about the school system."
Richard W. Montalto, who was Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey's campaign manager in 1994, said Sauerbrey, a former schoolteacher, had plenty of ideas for transforming the city schools, such as the use of vouchers.
But, he said, neither the media nor voters paid much attention to them. Instead, the message that resonated with the suburban voters who nearly put her in the governor's mansion that year was her call for shrinking the size of government and cutting taxes.
"We talked about it among ourselves," Montalto said. "It was an important issue for us, but we just couldn't get anyone to think it was an issue."
Ehrlich only occasionally mentions cutting the size of government on the stump - the state work force shrank under his leadership, but the size of the state budget grew rapidly, especially this year - and doesn't talk about cutting taxes.
But when he ties an impassioned appeal not to abandon city kids to voters' pecuniary interests, they pay attention.
"You could not believe in Maryland in 2006 we could have these kinds of numbers," Ehrlich said at Leisure World, referring to dismal test scores in some city schools.
"Guess whose tax dollars are going there? I'm looking at 'em," he said, eliciting a gasp from the crowd. "We pumped an additional $176 million from Montgomery County and every other county into Baltimore City for nothing."
There are limits to how far Ehrlich is trying to spread his message about city schools. Although he has begun airing television ads about them in Hagerstown and Salisbury, Baltimore didn't come up in a recent series of stops in Cumberland and Frostburg, even when the governor talked about his education record.
"We are different. We have different needs," said Lee Fiedler, the nonpartisan mayor of Cumberland. "We're not a lot of votes, I know, but it's important to our people to feel understood."
As for city voters, even Ehrlich supporters acknowledge that the governor has virtually no chance of winning a majority there.
But city leaders say he could cut into the mayor's margins by going after the pool of voters who have shown their willingness to vote against O'Malley.
"There are people here who are unhappy," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and supporter of the mayor. "The people who were dissatisfied with O'Malley before he decided to run for governor, I think, will continue in that posture. For some reason, they just don't like him."
A big margin in Baltimore is key to a Democrat's chances of victory statewide. Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening won his first term in part because of the 75 percent of the vote he got in the city. Eight years later, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend got about the same percentage, but thanks to population shifts and Ehrlich's strength in the suburbs, that wasn't enough.
There is an identifiable pool of city voters who have shown that they won't automatically support O'Malley - witness the 32 percent that political novice Andrey Bundley, a Democrat, got in his 2003 run for mayor.
But that was in a primary, and those voters' willingness to cross party lines isn't known. O'Malley got about 87 percent of the vote in the 2004 general election.
Pool of discontent
Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat who is retiring when his term ends in January, said Ehrlich's focus on schools could tap into a current of discontent in the city.
"There are a lot of people who will see it the governor's way, primarily because public schools in Baltimore have been frustrating for citizens for 35 years," Davis said.
But Davis said Ehrlich's main complaint about the city schools - that a state takeover of 11 middle and high schools should have moved forward - is a polarizing one.
The governor has criticized the Democratic-led General Assembly and O'Malley for blocking state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's attempt to take over the schools. Davis, who voted to block the takeover, said that although there is widespread frustration about the schools, many people saw the takeover plan as motivated by politics, not education.
"The plan didn't involve the community and the people," Davis said. "They had no input in that."
McFadden said that the irony of Ehrlich's appeal to city voters is that it's O'Malley's successes - redevelopment, an end to a decades-long population slide and the beginning of a turnaround in the schools - that make it possible.
"There are some things that are happening that are very positive," McFadden said. "People have some trepidation about O'Malley leaving because things are just starting to get rolling."
Kearney, the O'Malley spokesman, said Ehrlich's interest in the city has been limited to flashy media events, not the hard work of solving problems. He pointed to a 2005 event in which the governor came to Baltimore to announce what was to be a public relations campaign with Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony to counter witness intimidation, drug abuse and violence.
The event, featuring the bejeweled basketball player, got wide coverage on the local news, but the documentaries and public service announcements that Ehrlich promised as part of the "Hype vs. Reality" promotion never materialized.
"If you want to know the truth about what Bob Ehrlich has done in Baltimore, just look at his 'Hype vs. Reality' campaign," Kearney said in an e-mail. "There was a big televised rally with Carmelo Anthony - then it faded away by the time they took down the stage. I guess hype beat reality."