Bringing an end to a long and often nasty campaign that could determine the direction of the state for years to come, voters will cast their ballots today for governor, U.S. Senate and other statewide offices, choosing among a new generation of Democratic leaders and some of the strongest Republican candidates that Maryland has seen in years.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Maryland's first Republican chief executive in a generation, has fought Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to what opinion polls indicate is a virtual tie in the most expensive race the state has ever seen.
The contest, which has been brewing since the moment Ehrlich was declared the winner four years ago, has sharply divided the state in a grudge match between Maryland's two most dominant political personalities.
Matching the governor's race in intensity has been the 18- month campaign to determine a successor to Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who is retiring. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 40-year veteran of Maryland politics, faces a stiff challenge from Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has traded on a winning personality and a promise of change to bring him within a few points of the Democrat in the U.S. Senate race.
For those interested in state politics, this is as good as it gets.
And the good times might roll on. Voters have requested more than 190,000 absentee ballots, meaning that it could take days -- or weeks, if legal challenges mount -- to determine the winners.
In a dash to secure final undecided votes, the candidates packed the last hours of the race with a flurry of appearances.
O'Malley's green-and-white bus stopped yesterday for an afternoon appearance with former Vice President Al Gore at Leisure World, the Silver Spring retirement village, and ended with a rally last night atop Baltimore's Federal Hill attended by top Democrats from across the state, union members and hundreds of supporters.
"We are not a crowd; we are a community," said the mayor, echoing a refrain he has sounded throughout the race.
"Governor Ehrlich, if you don't have an interest in making our government work for working people, give it back to us," O'Malley said. "We want to make our government work again."
Ehrlich spent his last day on the campaign trail making a few stops in Easton and Dundalk before finishing with a rally in his hometown of Arbutus, a working-class community in southwestern Baltimore County that is featured prominently in some of the governor's campaign commercials.
"The values of this town are my values," he told a crowd of more than 300 supporters. "Those are the values I took to Annapolis four years ago, and those are the values we are going to take back with us."
The campaigns ended on a bitter note, with Democrats alleging dirty tricks yesterday because of a sample ballot mailed in Prince George's County that stated wrongly that former Rep. Kweisi Mfume and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson had endorsed Steele and Ehrlich. The two Democrats have endorsed Cardin and other Democrats.
The ballot said it was paid for and authorized by the Bob Ehrlich for Maryland Committee and Steele for Maryland Inc. An Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman acknowledged that the governor's campaign helped pay for the sample ballot. The Steele campaign did not respond to a request for comment last night.
Johnson, in a statement, said he was "outraged and incensed" at the mailing and that "Ehrlich and Steele are truly trying to steal this election."
Democrats also were complaining about other campaign messages in heavily black Prince George's yesterday, including reports of signs that urged voters not to be a "slave" to the Democratic Party.
Ehrlich has said little about what he would do in a second term. Instead, he is running on his record, saying that if Marylanders think the state is better now than it was four years ago, they should return him to office.
The governor says he steered the state through a fiscal crisis, jump-started transportation projects (including the long-awaited Inter-County Connector in suburban Washington), created a program to clean up sewage treatment plants that empty into the Chesapeake Bay and funded a landmark education spending program passed by the General Assembly before he took office, despite the lack of a funding source.
But the second major element of Ehrlich's campaign has been an attempt to convince voters that O'Malley's record in the city makes him unfit to lead the state. Ehrlich has spent months criticizing the mayor's handling of crime and schools in Baltimore, saying that O'Malley has failed to live up to his promises in those crucial areas.
"Our race is about success versus failure, a successful state versus a failed city administration," Ehrlich said Sunday.
O'Malley has sought to imbue his campaign with a sense of sweep, grandeur and pop culture, delivering a stump speech that includes quotes from Robert F. Kennedy and Bruce Springsteen, offers history lessons and speaks to a belief that there is a "unity to spirit and matter, and that what we do in our own lifetimes does matter."
O'Malley's campaign has been more focused on a vision for the future than has Ehrlich's. The mayor outlines a detailed plan in his speech and has sprinkled the campaign with announcements of his programs for the environment, transportation, education and utility regulation.
The mayor has not, however, shied away from his record in the city. He says some of his greatest accomplishments have come in the areas that Ehrlich criticizes -- test scores have improved in Baltimore schools, though they are still below those in the rest of the state, and crime is down, though not as much as O'Malley promised it would be when he first ran for mayor.
O'Malley's main attack on Ehrlich has been to allege that the governor is more concerned with the interests of corporations than with the interests of working families.
In the presence of Gore, an ardent advocate for awareness on global warming, O'Malley contrasted himself with Ehrlich yesterday by highlighting environmental issues -- promising to restore the state Office of Smart Growth, which Ehrlich downgraded, and to conserve open space rather than sell it to developers.
Gore praised O'Malley as the best government administrator in the nation. "That's a fact," he said.
Cardin, a member of Maryland's congressional delegation for two decades, has highlighted his work on Social Security, Medicare, retirement savings and other important elements of governance.
He has worked throughout the campaign to make it turn on national themes. Cardin voted against authorizing the war in Iraq, supports embryonic stem cell research and opposes privatizing Social Security, all issues on which he has tried to draw a contrast with Steele.
Stem cells have been one of the hottest issues in the race. Cardin enlisted actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, to record a television commercial praising Cardin's support for embryonic stem cell research -- and pillorying Steele for his opposition to it.
Cardin spent much of his last day on the trail with O'Malley, attending the Gore event at Leisure World and the get-out-the-vote rally in Federal Hill.
If voters fail to give Democrats like Cardin control of Congress today, Gore said, the legislative body under Republicans will continue to be "rubber stamp" for President Bush's failed policies.
Starting Sunday, Steele began an around-the-clock final push for the election, making middle-of-the-night stops at a bowling alley and diners to catch a last few voters before the polls open today.
Steele was recruited to run for Senate by Bush and his top aides, but he has worked to define himself as an independent voice. He made national headlines over the summer when, in a meeting with national political reporters, he referred to the "R" after his name as a "scarlet letter."
He has not centered his campaign on national hot-button issues such as Iraq but has instead talked about encouraging entrepreneurship, fighting poverty and improving education.
"I'm tired of people falling back on Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, red or blue, because last time I checked, our problems don't fall into those two categories," Steele said last week.
The lieutenant governor has argued that he, not Cardin, would be the one to bring change to Washington.
For the first time in decades, neither Comptroller William Donald Schaefer nor Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. will appear on a general election ballot in Maryland. Curran went out on his own terms, choosing to retire after this election, but Schaefer went out fighting, losing a tough battle in the Democratic primary.
That has left the door open for a cast of younger candidates looking to replace them. Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, beat Schaefer in the primary and will face Anne M. McCarthy, a dean at the University of Baltimore, who won the Republican nomination.
Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler won the Democratic primary in the attorney general's race and survived a court challenge to his eligibility. He will face Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle.
Rolle and McCarthy trail far behind the Democrats, according to a recent Sun poll.