O'Malley-Ehrlich II: It's a race

While the 2010 governor's race in Maryland is still in its early stages, we have already witnessed the kind of skirmishing — including controversies over e-mails, political signs and Northrop Grumman — that keep political junkies like me fully engaged.

Based on events so far, it is already possible to reach five firm conclusions about the nature of the 2010 campaign.

1) The race is competitive. Among likely voters, a May Washington Post poll and a June Rasmussen poll found former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Gov. Martin O'Malley tied. While the Ehrlich-O'Malley contest appears to be a political horse race, surfing might be a better sports analogy, as evidence exists that a broader, pro- GOP wave may be surging in Maryland.

The Post poll found that 54 percent of Marylanders support the new federal health care law, while 37 percent oppose it. However, Rasmussen found that a 53 percent majority of Marylanders wanted the new law repealed, while 42 percent did not.

Given Maryland's liberal bent and the fact that the BP oil spill has largely replaced the health care debate in the headlines, this disparity is potentially astonishing.

If the Rasmussen poll is accurate, then a fundamental ideological shift has rapidly occurred, signaling very good news for Mr. Ehrlich. If it is not, general economic angst is likely driving the race, indicating a competitive contest with a slight edge still going to the incumbent.

2) Democrats are concerned about Governor O'Malley's prospects. State Democratic leaders' initial response to an Ehrlich candidacy — mailing out letters explaining how he cannot win, posting attack ads on YouTube, and attempting to pull the plug on Mr. Ehrlich's Saturday morning WBAL radio show — did not project a strong degree of confidence in their own candidate. The talented partisans at the state Democratic headquarters could have achieved this by promoting Governor O'Malley's record instead of engaging in petty sniping.

3) This is Ehrlich Part 2, not Ehrlich 2.0. The Bob Ehrlich running in 2010 is the same guy who ran in 2002 and 2006. The candor is back, as is the willingness to discuss a wide range of public policy issues — sometimes at the expense of message discipline. So is the Blues Brothers-style "We're getting the band back together" approach to campaigning. So is the tendency to articulate a broad message of change and electability without offering many specifics.

So far, if the polls are any indication, this resurrected campaign style seems to be working. But if the O'Malley campaign sharpens its attacks on Mr. Ehrlich's record as governor, especially on taxes and spending, a new approach may be needed.

4) Neither side has dominated the debate. Campaigns are typically won by the candidate who sets the agenda. Incumbents can set the agenda simply by doing the job — unless events such as an oil spill, a natural disaster or a bad economy limit their ability to do so.

To date, the campaign has been a seesaw of rival press events and announcements. This tit-for-tat implies that Governor O'Malley could be more successful in using the office to dominate the agenda and promote his accomplishments.

When neither candidate dominates the agenda, the incumbent benefits from the challenger's failure to convince people of why change is needed. Mr. Ehrlich's team needs to get creative in finding strategies to harness their biggest asset: voter concerns over jobs and the economy. To date, the biggest PR victory scored by the Ehrlich campaign — the Baltimore County campaign sign dispute — was reportedly not directly initiated by the campaign.

5) African-American turnout is the key. If Governor O'Malley can mobilize black voter turnout, he wins. Look to him to leverage the grass-roots networks of African-American officials, the popularity of the first African-American president, and Maryland's new early voting system.

One final conclusion about the governor's contest: It won't be dull. Let's just hope policies get as much attention as the personalities will.

Richard J. Cross III, a Baltimore resident, is a former press secretary and speechwriter to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His e-mail is rcrossiii@comcast.net.

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