Larry Hogan, Republican candidate for Maryland governor
Larry Hogan, Republican candidate for Maryland governor (Robert K. Hamilton, Baltimore Sun)

Using a daughter's compelling testimonial and a rally in Annapolis, Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan is fighting rival Anthony G. Brown's attempt to persuade voters that Hogan would take the state backward on such matters as abortion and birth control

Hogan's counteroffensive comes after a sustained ad blitz in which Brown's campaign and its allies seek to portray Hogan as a closet right-wing extremist who would roll back the clock on social issues if he could.

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The Republican addressed a crowd of about 100 outside the State House on Wednesday —- half of them wearing pink Women for Hogan T-shirts — at a rally focused on the issues of breast cancer and domestic violence. But the event was clearly intended as a visual counterpoint to a barrage of television ads from Brown and the Democratic Governors Association that seize on comments Hogan made in the early 1980s to portray him as someone who would seek to restrict access to abortion and birth control.

Hogan told the rally he would work to protect women's access to health care, and argued his core message of cutting spending and taxes is important to women — who, analysts note, make up more than half the electorate.

"Women are the heads of most households in our state and make the most financial decisions for their families," Hogan said. "Make no mistake: Restoring our economy is very much a women's issue."

The Democrats' attack ads are based on Hogan comments from 1980 and 1981 in which he supported a ban on abortions at a Prince George's County hospital except to save the life of the mother, as well as a "human life amendment" that would have barred abortions while possibly outlawing some forms of birth control. By 1992, Hogan had modified those positions and said abortion should remain legal.

Today Hogan says that he is still personally opposed to abortion, but he pledges he will not try to change Maryland's laws protecting women's rights to the procedure nor to limit access to contraception. He has branded Brown's ads as lies.

Justin Schall, Brown's campaign manager, rejected Hogan's criticism of the ad campaign.

"Hogan has proven over and over again he doesn't trust women to make their own health decisions, whether it was his support to ban abortions or his support of a constitutional amendment that would limit women's access to common forms of birth control," Schall said.

He said Brown has consistently supported the position of women's groups who want to preserve Maryland's abortion laws and expand access to birth control.

"Hogan just can't be trusted on women's health issues," Schall contended.

Democrats are running similar ads focused on abortion, contraception and other social issues in congressional races across the country ahead of the November midterm elections. Those messages generally are airing in close contests.

Several observers questioned why Brown, the front runner in the race according to independent polls, is adopting the same playbook in Maryland. Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, speculated that the Brown campaign is attempting to steer Hogan off his economic-centered message.

"They know that in Maryland, an area of weakness for Republicans has always been social issues: abortion, guns, and more recently same sex marriage," Eberly said.

He added: "I can't think of any viable explanation for the Brown folks to adopt what can only be described as a scorched-earth strategy other than their [polling] numbers don't look as good as we think they do."

The Hogan camp insists that Brown's effort to tar him on women's issues is falling flat.

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"I believe there's been a real backlash to these terrible, negative attack ads," Hogan said after the rally. His aides pointed to a poll released Wednesday showing the Republican just 4 points behind Brown despite the Democrats' 2-1 voter registration advantage in Maryland.

The poll of 805 likely voters, conducted by nonpartisan Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, showed Brown leading Hogan 47 percent to 43 percent, with 9 percent of voters undecided and 1 percent supporting Libertarian candidate Shawn Quinn. The GOP political action committee "Maryland, My Maryland" paid for the survey and publicly supports Hogan.

Schall, Brown's campaign manager, said he wouldn't comment on a "partisan" poll.

At Wednesday's rally, Hogan avoided direct attacks on Brown in remarks in which political messages were muted but hardly absent. On domestic violence, Hogan tied the issue in with his central campaign theme that the state's economy has deteriorated under Gov. Martin O'Malley. He said domestic violence increases when more people are jobless and charged that unemployment has nearly doubled since the governor took office.

Acting as emcee for the event was Jaymi Sterling, one of Hogan's three daughters. Last week, the Hogan campaign released a television ad in which an impassioned Sterling vouched for her father's support of women and his pledge not to roll back Maryland women's abortion rights.

Sterling also sought to go Brown one better on access to contraception, saying Hogan favors making birth control available over the counter while still being covered by health insurance — as it is under President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Hogan's support for allowing women to buy contraception over the counter mirrors proposals offered by other Republican candidates across the county — including those in Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado.

The stance has forced a number of women's groups into the position of opposing an idea they had broadly supported in the past. The problem, several groups said, is that the proposal offered by Hogan and other Republicans does not have a provision for such over-the-counter birth control to be covered by their insurance. Currently, under the health care act, most insurance carriers are required to cover the cost of prescription contraception with no co-pay.

"The Republican party is offering up empty gestures to women voters," said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for Emily's List, a group that focuses on women's issues. "The Republicans know that they're underwater with women, which is why they're going to try these last-ditch political efforts."

By raising the issue of domestic violence at Wednesday's rally, Hogan spoke on an issue Brown has championed. The lieutenant governor took the lead on domestic violence legislation in the O'Malley administration, and his efforts to strengthen state laws have won Brown strong support among advocates.

"He has been out front on this issue," said Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Domestic Violence Network. "I do think he cares about this issue," Cohen said. A longtime activist on domestic violence, Cohen was not aware of any role Hogan had played on such issues.

At one point in the rally, Hogan praised a trio of domestic violence laws that took effect Wednesday. One makes it easier for women to obtain protective court orders, especially against attackers who have been convicted of second-degree assault. Another allows tougher sentences for domestic violence committed in the presence of children.

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Hogan did not mention that the bills were part of the O'Malley administration's legislative package and that Brown had testified in favor of them.

"We don't disagree on every single issue," Hogan said when questioned after the rally. "You notice I didn't mention the lieutenant governor's name today."

Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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