Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez was headed into the Democratic primary for attorney general with some pretty big backers: teachers, labor unions, environmental groups and others who could get voters to back a little-known candidate in a wide-open race.
But yesterday, just as his first television advertisement of the campaign hit the airwaves, the Court of Appeals ruled that he is ineligible for the office because he lacks the 10 years of legal experience in Maryland required by the state constitution. Perez was a federal lawyer for more than a decade, but not a member of the Maryland bar until 2001.
As a result, all that support from the liberal constituencies that make up a major chunk of the Democratic primary vote is now up for grabs.
Each of his opponents, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler and former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, is laying claim to Perez's backers.
But the early sense among those watching the race is that Gansler is better poised to take advantage of the vacuum Perez left. He has had more time to build a statewide organization, he has far more campaign cash, he is better known to Perez's supporters in Montgomery County and he is already running ads on television, something Simms might not have the money to do.
"For the time being, it's a significant boost for Doug Gansler," said Keith Haller, president of Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., a public opinion research firm. "Gansler has the momentum and has the significant resource edge to take advantage of these very positive new circumstances."
A Sun poll in July showed that two-thirds of likely voters were still undecided in the race. Simms got 15 percent of the vote, Gansler 12 and Perez 6. In the fund-raising race, Gansler was well ahead in this month's campaign finance reports, with $1.4 million on hand compared with $330,000 for Perez and $66,000 for Simms.
Gansler has been preparing for this campaign for years, and he was the first candidate to begin television advertising. This month, he got endorsements from Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn, the two most influential politicians in the jurisdiction with the largest concentration of primary voters in the state, a key bit of support from the African-American community.
And on the same day that his rival for Montgomery County voters was forced out of the race, he got the endorsement of The Washington Post.
"Tom Perez being off the ballot is a big shot in the arm for the Gansler campaign because there's only going to be one person on the ballot from Montgomery County looking for votes in Montgomery County," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who backs Gansler. "The fact that Doug has a good campaign war chest and is already on TV is going to stand him in good stead."
Before yesterday's decision, Perez said he was counting on support from the unions and interest groups to compete with Gansler's money.
With the Baltimore and Washington airwaves cluttered with political advertisements by candidates for governor, Congress and comptroller, he figured that Gansler's financial edge might not be enough to make him a household name.
But the groups that endorsed Perez - in particular the Maryland State Teachers Association, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union - have well-organized get-out-the-vote operations that could make a big difference.
Their role in the attorney general's race could now be neutralized. Because the court decision came so late in the campaign - the primary is just over two weeks away - some of the groups won't be able to decide on a new candidate to endorse.
MSTA spokesman Daniel Kaufman said his organization, for example, has to go through a lengthy voting process among its membership before it can decide on a candidate for any office, and it's too late to do that again.
"We cannot endorse another candidate in the primary," Kaufman said. "We're very disappointed because we thought Tom was a good candidate. There are other good candidates in the race, and we'll certainly take a look at them after the primary is over."
Geography has loomed large in the race from the start. Baltimore lawyers have had a lock on the attorney general's office for decades, and many in the Montgomery County political community thought it was time for one of their own to take the job. But with two of them in the race, the conventional wisdom held that a solid candidate from Baltimore - particularly an African-American - could sweep in and win.
Although Perez's exit from the race eliminates the chance of a Montgomery County split, Gansler said yesterday that his strategy won't change at all. He said he didn't think average voters were looking at the attorney general's race with the same kind of parochial perspective they would for other offices.
"You are the lawyer for the state, and the lawyer for the state is not going to focus on one jurisdiction over another," he said.
Some Montgomery County officials said they're not sure the development is such a clear-cut boost for Gansler. County Council President George Leventhal, who endorsed Perez, said that although he knows Gansler better, he will have to take time to decide whom to support.
"I think very highly of both Doug and Stu," he said. "I think we had three good choices."
Tom Hucker, a former executive director of Progressive Maryland who is running for the House of Delegates in Montgomery County, said that although Gansler is regarded as a talented lawyer, he has rubbed some people the wrong way. Like any public official with a record, Gansler has made adversaries, and they might automatically gravitate to Simms now that Perez is out, Hucker said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who supports Simms, said there are Perez voters beyond his Montgomery County base who are up for grabs. Perez, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, had made connections in the Baltimore legal community, Busch said.
"I think Mr. Perez had a lot of support in the Baltimore region ... and most of that will go to Mr. Simms," Busch said. "He had a lot of support in Montgomery County, and most of that will probably go to Mr. Gansler."
Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who endorsed Perez, said he, for one, would switch his support to Simms. But he said that it will be a difficult choice for all of Perez's supporters.
"I try not to be given to hyperbole, but these were three super-talented, super-smart gentlemen, and I would say the Democratic Party had an embarrassment of riches," Davis said. "I don't think Perez's supporters can go wrong no matter whom they choose."
Sun reporter Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.