Gov. Martin O'Malley has opened a 14-point lead over former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in their gubernatorial rematch, solidifying his Democratic base and winning over independents while his rival struggles to capitalize on the voter anger that is propelling Republicans in other parts of the country, according to a Baltimore Sun poll.
Democrats who had been undecided during the summer are lining up behind O'Malley, who enjoys wide margins in the vote-rich Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties and has a narrow edge in the Baltimore suburbs — regions where Ehrlich had hoped to make inroads.
"It appears that O'Malley has shifted this race overall," said Steve Raabe, president of the Annapolis polling firm OpinionWorks, which conducted the statewide telephone survey of 798 likely voters for The Sun.
With more than eight of 10 O'Malley backers describing their support as "firm," Raabe said, the incumbent "has done a good job of securing his base." Democratic voters in Maryland seem "to be equally motivated" as Republicans, who have long smelled victory in the current political climate, Raabe said.
Louise Wright, a Baltimore Democrat, is planning to vote for O'Malley, saying "he just did an excellent job as mayor of Baltimore and he did an excellent job as governor."
"He shows integrity," said Wright, 64, who participated in the survey and agreed to share her views with Sun journalists. "He inherited a mess, and I think Maryland has done remarkably well given the overall economy. I hope he wins."
O'Malley leads Ehrlich 52 percent to 38 percent, the largest spread of any publicly reported poll during the campaign. The result continues a trend showing O'Malley breaking away in a race that was once a dead heat. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
O'Malley beat then-Governor Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points in 2006.
More than four in 10 respondents to the survey conducted from Oct. 15 to 20 said they want to elect new candidates to office, a finding that tracks with national polls.
But the sentiment doesn't appear to be helping Ehrlich. After a total of 20 years in the General Assembly, Congress and the governor's mansion, Raabe said, Ehrlich is viewed by voters as a "quasi-incumbent."
"He doesn't get the change mantle," Raabe said.
Despite the anti-incumbent mood, and despite the 44 percent of voters who said the state economy is getting worse, respondents had a largely favorable view of O'Malley. Television ads portraying him as a champion of business and education all summer went largely unanswered by Ehrlich, who said recently that he simply did not have the money to buy airtime at that point.
O'Malley's 52 percent favorable rating is up slightly from the 48 percent he registered in a January 2008 Sun poll. Ehrlich's popularity, meanwhile, has dipped: When he was governor from 2003 to 2007, his favorable rating remained consistently above 50 percent in several Sun polls. In the current survey, it has fallen to 43 percent; an equal percentage said they hold an unfavorable view of him.
One explanation could be the onslaught of O'Malley ads portraying Ehrlich as a high-paid corporate player aligned with big business. O'Malley has been "hammering away" at Ehrlich's image, Raabe said.
Ehrlich has called the O'Malley ads "goofy." But he didn't begin airing his own television advertisements until mid-September, and didn't hit the expensive Washington market until more recently.
Poll respondents expressed distaste for the commercials from both campaigns, which are expected to continue in force until Election Day.
"I'm just turned off by both of the candidates and the ads they're putting up," said Braxton Richardson, 63, a registered Democrat in Silver Spring. "I would rather they spend money to share something with me about what they intend to do."
Richardson said he voted for O'Malley four years ago, and would do so again — but reluctantly.
When contacted for the survey, Louis Houghton declared himself undecided in the gubernatorial race. But when reached later by The Sun, the St. Mary's County Republican said he had made up his mind to vote for Ehrlich. Houghton, 69, said he had been "willing to give O'Malley a chance, but there's just so much untruth in his ads."
The poll results anticipate that Republicans will make up 30 percent of the electorate. Republicans make up 27 percent of registered voters in the state; Raabe said he bumped up their participation to reflect their increased motivation this year. Among Republican voters, Ehrlich leads O'Malley 75 percent to 11 percent.
Raabe dropped the proportion of black voters to 19 percent, down from the record 25 percent two years ago, when President Barack Obama was on the ballot. Among black voters, O'Malley leads Ehrlich 88 percent to 4 percent.
Turnout, turnout, turnout
Ehrlich and O'Malley both say turnout will be the key to the election outcome. Both have promoted the state's new early voting system, which began last week and runs through Thursday, as a way to lock in votes.
They've also turned to political stars to pump up their bases. Ehrlich is scheduled to host former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Sunday at a farm in Montgomery County. O'Malley appeared with former President Bill Clinton last Thursday in Baltimore.
Democrats are particularly concerned with turnout after last month's primary, when voter participation was the lowest since at least 1982. Analysts say Ehrlich could benefit from enthusiasm on the right.
One motivated voter is Janell Phipps, a Republican in Perry Hall. This year, she says, she's particularly upset. "I'm unhappy with the way our country is going right now," said Phipps, 64. "I think we are on a downward spiral. There is too much liberalism and too much people being given things for nothing."
In Baltimore County, which accounted for Ehrlich's margin of victory in 2002 but went narrowly for O'Malley four years ago, the candidates appear to be about tied.
Harland Heller, 62, a Pikesville Republican, said he voted for Ehrlich in 2002 and 2006 because they share social beliefs. This time, he said, he supports Ehrlich "with my heart" but wants O'Malley "with my mind."
A middle school math teacher, Heller said he was impressed by O'Malley's attempts to protect teachers. He also liked that O'Malley "froze college tuition for the last four years."
But Heller said his support is not firm.
"It is so close with me I could go either way," he said. "I'm torn like I've never been torn."
O'Malley and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, enjoy their greatest margin among African-American voters. O'Malley and Ehrlich debated issues of interest to the community a few days ago on WOLB, a black-owned radio station in Baltimore.
The venue gave Ehrlich another opportunity to raise a favorite campaign issue: O'Malley's controversial zero-tolerance arrest policy when he was mayor of Baltimore.
Dana Irby, 46, said Ehrlich "made some good points" in the debate. Still, the Baltimore Democrat said, Ehrlich is "for big business. Ehrlich is no champion of the people."
The women's vote
In selecting Mary Kane as his running mate, Ehrlich hoped to appeal to women and to Montgomery County voters, both traditionally Democratic-leaning constituencies. O'Malley leads Ehrlich among women, 55 percent to 34 percent, and among Montgomery County voters, 60 percent to 33 percent.
More than half of independent and third-party voters said they support O'Malley. Thirty-seven percent said they back Ehrlich.
Seven percent of respondents said they were undecided or unsure about their vote for governor; 3 percent refused to answer.
William Stratton, a Democrat in Catonsville, said he won't be voting for either candidate, even though he voted for O'Malley four years ago. In an interview, he was seething mad.
"They're both lying, typical politicians that don't give a damn about their constituents," said Stratton, 69. "All they care about it their cushy jobs, their cushy pensions. I'm finally fed up."