Same adversaries, new race

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. doesn't have to break away from running the state to hit the campaign trail. He no longer has to defend the war in Iraq or the policies of his party's unpopular president. But he does face questions about how he spent his four years out of office.

Martin O'Malley cannot run as the Annapolis outsider or count on a national wave to carry him to victory. He must carve out time from his day job to meet with voters. After four years in office, he has a record to tout — and, where critics are concerned, defend.

In the rematch of their 2006 gubernatorial contest, O'Malley and Ehrlich each face a familiar adversary. But the terms of the battle and the terrain on which they are waging it have changed radically.

Four years ago, then-Baltimore Mayor O'Malley, a Democrat, rode voter anger at President George W. Bush and the Republicans to victory over then-Governor Ehrlich. Now Ehrlich, a Republican, is looking to capitalize on anger at President Barack Obama and the Democrats over the economy and government spending.

"All of us have endured a lot of pain over the last three years," O'Malley said. "Every family, every small business has had to make cuts. That's the biggest change from four years ago. People are very anxious to see better days."

Voter frustration with the slow recovery from a historic recession is threatening Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and several state capitals. The unemployment rate in Maryland, at 7.1 percent in July, has stayed below the national average. Yet it's double what it was when O'Malley took office in January 2007.

In this blue state, where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans in voter registration and elected state lawmakers, analysts are rating the O'Malley-Ehrlich rematch a tossup.

Maryland Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a two-time gubernatorial nominee who served in the Bush administration as an assistant secretary of state, says she has never seen more disenchantment here with Democrats. The turnaround from four years ago is striking, she said.

Back then, she said, "the wind was very much in [Ehrlich's] face. … People liked Bob but wanted to send a message to the Republican Party. Now, people are going to do that to the Democrats."

Ehrlich recently summed it up this way: "In 2006, we worked hard, but if the electorate is running against you, it's hard to run against the cycle."

This time, he says, he's not asked to opine on the Iraq war. He's not hearing Bush's name at every candidate forum.

The candidates have different professional situations now, too. Ehrlich has nowhere near the campaign chest he amassed four years ago as a sitting governor; his August finance report showed $2.5 million in the bank, compared with $8.4 million at the same point in 2006.

But he is also free of the job's encumbrances. Having taken a leave from his law office, Ehrlich is able to campaign full time.

"When you're governor, you have no time to campaign, and I'm sure that O'Malley's finding that now," Ehrlich said. "It's really a disadvantage of incumbency."

Ehrlich made criticism of O'Malley's performance as mayor of Baltimore a focus of his 2006 campaign. Now, the O'Malley campaign is raising questions about Ehrlich's work as head of the Baltimore office of the North Carolina law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice.

O'Malley supporters say Ehrlich's role has amounted to lobbying for high-paying special-interest groups. Ehrlich never registered as a lobbyist and says he has done no lobbying. His release of tax returns showing that he earned more than $700,000 per year while at Womble, gave critics a new opportunity to press the issue.

Despite all of the sniping and personal attacks that two candidates who know each other well can unleash, this should be one of the most issues-based gubernatorial campaigns in memory, said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. Because neither man needs to introduce himself to voters, Smith said, the discussion should focus on job performance.

"There are two four-year periods to compare," said Smith, a Democrat and O'Malley supporter. "They have the ability now to contrast their styles, work ethic and priorities."

Ehrlich disagrees.

"I was admonished by smart people not to rely on my record, even though we welcome that discussion," he said. "Times are tough. People want you to talk about what you're going to do for them, not what you did in a different time."

O'Malley said it's not surprising that Ehrlich, whom he criticizes as a big-spending governor, "wants us to have amnesia about his record. He's in a fantasy world where he thinks he is a new candidate."

O'Malley has focused on jobs and repeats that Maryland is poised to emerge from the recession more quickly than other states. But he acknowledges that it can be a tough sell.

"The frustrating thing is that there are a lot of people out there who are still hurting," O'Malley said. "Talking about how we're doing better as a state than many other states is of little consolation to a family where a mom or dad has lost a job."

Voter enthusiasm appears to have shifted, too.

O'Malley beat Ehrlich in 2006 by 117,000 votes, or 6.5 percentage points, capitalizing on throngs of motivated Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George's County, and chipping away at Ehrlich's bases in the more conservative Baltimore suburbs.

It is unclear whether O'Malley can rely upon those same voters. The anemic primary election turnout last week — 24 percent, the lowest at least since 1982 — does not bode well for him.

In Prince George's, former County Executive Wayne K. Curry said, "people are so preoccupied with fundamental issues, basic issues, that appealing to them on lofty grounds is kind of like delivering a sermon to people trying to bail water out of their basement."

Nowhere is that more evident than in black communities, Curry said, where the recession has hit the hardest. Dire financial straits, he said, "can have negative impact on people's excitement about being involved."

Curry, a Democrat who supported Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, Republican Michael S. Steele, in his failed bid for a Senate seat four years ago, said he has not become actively involved in this gubernatorial election. But he said O'Malley and Ehrlich need to "be creative and inventive to get people to vote."

As for the Baltimore suburbs, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said, "Martin O'Malley is going to have a very difficult time duplicating his margins in those counties."

Miller predicted that the race would go down to the wire.

"It's going to be a very close election that's going to depend solely upon turnout," Miller said. "The Republican Party is more energized than the Democrats at the present time. But the Democratic Party has larger numbers and a much better, more organized get-out-the-vote effort."

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