As the front-runner in the Democratic race for governor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown often rallies his supporters as though he were already the incumbent. He touts the past seven years under Gov. Martin O'Malley as "righting the ship" — but then subtly pitches a different vision for Maryland.
"We've got to recognize our successes and come clean with the fact that we can do better," Brown said as he opened a campaign office in Prince George's County recently. "It is not enough to say we've got the best schools in the nation unless every child … can access them."
Brown has offered some proposals that take aim at economic inequality — on Tuesday, for instance, calling for more support to help low-income students close the achievement gap. Last week, he proposed giving taxpayer-funded college loans to immigrants in the country illegally. He has pointed to his work on health enterprise zones, designed to provide better care to poor communities with high rates of illness.
But if Brown is indeed fashioning a message of closing the gap between the haves and have-nots in Maryland, he has been vague, political observers say. Even he eschews the notion that inequality would be the focus of his campaign.
That has left many to wait and see how Brown will define his candidacy — and how he would be different from O'Malley.
"People are looking for the lieutenant governor to show what he's passionate about and what he's going to focus his attention on," said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic strategist. "No matter how much you plan on continuing the policies of your predecessor, you will govern in a different way. And voters will want to know what that difference is."
David Shapiro, a Baltimore business owner, went to hear Brown speak, expecting to learn what he stood for. He says he was underwhelmed.
"I was excited to meet him," Shapiro said. "I thought Anthony Brown would be another Obama. And then there was nothing there."
A recent opinion poll for The Baltimore Sun showed Brown with a formidable 21-point lead over his nearest opponent, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. But 40 percent of likely Democratic primary voters are undecided. And political experts say much of Brown's early support is soft. Voters could switch allegiances, and Brown must woo undecided Democrats like Shapiro to claim the party's nomination.
To attract enough of the undecideds, experts say Brown must use the next four months until the June 24 primary explaining what he stands for.
"Whether O'Malley's popular or not, it's important for whoever the next governor is to build their own persona and their own vision," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist.
In a brief interview last week, Brown pointed to the "vision" page of his newly redesigned campaign website as the road map to the type of governor he would be.
To describe his vision, he offered his campaign slogan: "A better Maryland for more Marylanders."
Most political observers attribute Brown's early success in part to inheriting O'Malley's political machine, Brown's high name recognition and his ability to garner endorsements from people who want to keep the status quo. O'Malley is exceedingly popular among state Democrats, 63 percent of whom approve of the two-term governor. In a state dominated by Democrats, experts said, Brown could win by presenting himself as Part 2 of the O'Malley legacy.
Melba and Bob Piersma of Montgomery County attended a Brown campaign event in Silver Spring last week for that reason. "We voted for O'Malley, and he chose Anthony Brown," said Melba Piersma. She said it wasn't clear to her exactly how Brown was different, but "we hope it can be a continuation of O'Malley's policies."
O'Malley is also a polarizing governor, whose approval rating is only 32 percent among independent voters and a minuscule 11 percent among Republicans. Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said that while O'Malley loyalists will help Brown, there are so many undecided Democratic voters that Brown must clearly distinguish himself.
"He cannot run on a coattail ticket," Kromer said. "He cannot be the heir apparent. He does have to differentiate himself. People can want a change. At the end of the day, people do like a new perspective, a fresh perspective. And he needs to offer that."
Brown has released a series of policy proposals, many of which tackle issues of access and closing gaps. In the interview, he disputed the suggestion that his campaign would focus on inequality, but went on to talk about reducing disparity in a state that otherwise boasts many achievements.
"There are still some populations, they don't experience the greatness that is Maryland," he said. The state needs to focus on them, Brown said.
His policy on the environment stresses "environmental justice" — ending storm-related floods in urban neighborhoods and helping asthmatic children who live near smokestacks.
"We will address disparities wherever they are found — including our environment, because no family should have to choose between an affordable home and a healthy neighborhood," Brown says on his website.
He strikes a similar theme as he describes his plan to help minority-owned businesses earn a greater share of government contracts, improve the state's worst-performing schools or move vulnerable children out of foster care.
In his business plan, Brown cites one of O'Malley's favored talking points about Maryland: ranking first in innovation and entrepreneurship. But then he follows it with statistics that call for rethinking government's influence on business, pointing out that Maryland ranks 43rd among states for its business climate.
Brown goes on to say that none of his policies represents a departure from O'Malley, nor do his comments that the state needs to "come clean" about its weaknesses suggest that his vision is very different.
"I don't think anyone would suggest, and I certainly don't, that our work is complete," he said. "It's not about being different. It's about what's next for Maryland."