By DANIEL LEADERMAN
ANNAPOLIS - They have a fraction of the money. They're hardly household names. But two relative unknowns have decided to take on Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley this fall.
And they just might have a chance.
For now, the campaigns of Democrat George Owings III and Republican Larry Hogan may be overshadowed by speculation about the potential candidacy of former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich. But they have been quietly reaching out to discontented voters across the state at a time when stalled health care reform, unemployment and a lost U.S. Senate seat have made Democrats vulnerable.
"Sometimes you just have to tap into voter mood and run a more organic campaign," said Todd Eberly, who teaches political science at St. Mary's College. "Look to New Jersey. No one is going to argue that (Democratic Gov. Jon) Corzine didn't have a huge cash advantage."
Corzine was defeated by Republican Chris Christie in 2009. "Money can only take you so far," Eberly said.
Neither candidate is a stranger in Annapolis. Owings spent 16 years in the Maryland House of Delegates, and served as Ehrlich's Secretary of Veterans Affairs from 2004 to 2007.
Hogan, whose father represented Maryland in the U.S. House of Representatives, founded and runs a commercial real estate brokerage firm. He served as Secretary of Appointments to Ehrlich, but his campaign website boasts that he is "not a career politician."
Both candidates have criticized government spending under O'Malley. Both feel the governor hasn't done enough to create jobs. "Philosophically, we agree," Owings said. "(But) we belong to different parties."
"He's a conservative Democrat with a lot in common with Republicans," Hogan said. "We see eye to eye a lot."
At least one of the two will have to compete with O'Malley's formidable war chest, which his campaign reported last week was at $5.7 million. And money seems to be scarce for all the potential challengers thus far.
Campaign finance figures released last week show Hogan actually has more money in the bank than Ehrlich. Hogan's campaign organization has $320,896.86 on hand, after making $325,000 in personal loans to his campaign, while Ehrlich has just $141,778.90 after raising about $76,000 this past year and spending about $86,000.
Owings has just $2,435.34, according to the Maryland Elections Center.
Neither Hogan nor Ehrlich is likely to be able to rely on the Maryland Republican Party, which reported having a little more than $14,000 in available funds with more than $147,000 in outstanding debts.
But Owings and Hogan have no illusions of trying to outspend the governor.
"I'll be running an austere campaign," Owings said. "I don't want huge sums of money. People in Maryland need their money worse than I do."
Hogan also doesn't expect to match O'Malley "dollar for dollar," but is confident he can win voter support on a smaller budget.
"O'Malley is holding fundraisers at $4,000 a ticket in (Miami Beach) Florida, we'll be holding $40 fundraisers in North Beach, Maryland," Hogan said. "There's an awful lot of Marylanders that are mad as heck (but) may not have the deepest pockets."
Hogan's own campaign experience has taught him there's no need to fear being the underdog. In 1992, Hogan ran for his father's former congressional seat against Democrat Steny Hoyer. Hogan ultimately lost the race, but made a legitimate run at it.
One key strategy for lesser-known candidates is to focus voter attention on a specific issue. Owings, for example, may draw strength from "rumblings that O'Malley doesn't care about Southern Maryland," Eberly said.
"Owings has a long record of service down here," Eberly said. "He's been travelling around the state, micro-targeting where he goes ... to see if he can't just make his presence known."
Eberly said this strategy has worked in the past, such as when retired grocery store clerk Robert Fustero won 20 percent of the vote in the 2002 Democratic primary against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
The same principles hold true for a Republican like Hogan, who has said that if Ehrlich decides to run, he will drop out.
"As long as Ehrlich hasn't popped into the race, there's no reason for Hogan not to run," Eberly said. "Someone like Larry Hogan could be the next Scott Brown," he said, referring to the recently-elected Republican senator from Massachusetts.
As for Ehrlich himself, Eberly expects the former governor to announce his candidacy any day now, especially considering the outcome of the Massachusetts special election.
"He's been talking about it too much not to do it," Eberly said. "Why not announce during the legislative session, when the governor is caught up in the business of the session?"
As far as Owings and Hogan are concerned, the most important business of the session is likely to be jobs, jobs, jobs.
Owings specifically criticized O'Malley for cutting 3,300 government positions in the past three years. "Which is it? Are we going to employ people or are we going to fire people?" Owings said, but acknowledged that many of the eliminated positions were vacant.
Hogan argued that O'Malley just doesn't know where jobs come from.
"O'Malley believes the government creates jobs," Hogan said. "I believe it's the private sector."
Hogan said that his experience as a small businessman taught him what it's like to create jobs and struggle to meet a payroll.
"For three years O'Malley has pushed tax increases and regulations on small businesses," Hogan said. But Maryland remains "at the onset of a recession, you don't penalize the small businesses...that's what caused the job loss."
And the job losses are where O'Malley is most vulnerable, Eberly said.
"He's got to make the case to get the economy going and bring jobs to Maryland," Eberly said. "At the same time, he's a little challenged...he's got to submit a balanced budget, but in an election year he can't call for raising taxes. He has to watch the cuts to keep from undermining key constituencies."
The O'Malley campaign doesn't have much to say on Owings or Hogan, yet. "We take any and all candidates seriously," said Tom Russell, O'Malley's campaign manager. "But it's a long time from now until November, and we don't have a great sense of who our opposition is likely to be."
House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, D-Montgomery, said Hogan's chances against O'Malley are stronger that Owings'.
"If Ehrlich decides not to run, (Hogan) inherits Ehrlich's supporters," Barve said. "People don't really know him, but that's not really an impediment. People will get to know you."
Barve is less certain about Owings' motives.
"Sometimes people run for higher office in order to set themselves up for future campaigns," Barve said. "Barbara Mikulski did that ? I don't think that's George Owings' game."
"(Hogan)'s young enough and new enough to run for something else if he doesn't win," Barve said. "In George's case he doesn't really have that as an option."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.