By ABBY BROWNBACK
ANNAPOLIS (October 30, 2010)Anti-incumbent sentiment, Republican enthusiasm and the emergence of the Tea Party might have propelled former Gov. Bob Ehrlich to an upset of sitting Gov. Martin O'Malley.
But this is Maryland, and Ehrlich's campaign has lacked momentum, leaving the former governor dependent on winning a difficult turnout battle come Tuesday.
"He's got a tough hill to climb, no matter how good a campaign he runs," said Laura Hussey, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
State Democrats' 2-to-1 advantage in numbers of registered voters means, to win, Ehrlich would need both every Republican vote and incredibly low turnout by Democrats, Hussey said, something she finds hard to imagine happening.
The registration disadvantage is Ehrlich's primary obstacle, Hussey said. It is difficult to convince voters to cross party lines in a state where "being a Democrat is part and parcel of one's identity."
But Ehrlich has done it before.
In 2002, he ran for governor on a message of change for the state and defeated then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Ehrlich, buoyed by Townsend's role in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's unpopular administration, won big in the suburbs and ate into Townsend's margins with African-Americans and women to seize a 6-point victory.
At least some voters indicated this summer that they would be willing to cross party lines to support Ehrlich for a second term as governor, and an average of polls by RealClearPolitics put the candidates in a statistical dead heat in July. Since then, O'Malley has steadily pulled away, notching double-digit leads in four recent polls.
O'Malley may be avoiding anti-incumbent fervor, which is not as evident in Maryland as it is nationwide, because his opponent also has spent four years in the governor's mansion, analysts say.
"Voters regard Ehrlich pretty much as an incumbent himself," said Matthew Crenson, a professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
Negative ads aired by the O'Malley campaign have perpetuated the idea, said Roy T. Meyers, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. O'Malley's ads highlight fees levied under Ehrlich's administration, increases in tuition at state colleges and universities, and other artifacts of Ehrlich's time as governor.
Ehrlich's campaign recognizes that he is not a political newcomer, spokesman Andy Barth said.
"One of the interesting aspects of this race is that there's a former incumbent and an incumbent," Barth said. "We are not a new face in the way some anti-incumbents are, and we think that's a strength."
Regardless of the individual candidates, though, anti-incumbent sentiment hasn't taken hold in Maryland because of a large concentration of government employees and a state economy that's performing better than most.
"This is a very distinctive state," Crenson said. "The richest county in the state (Montgomery) is largely Democratic and liberal with a lot of high-level government employees. They don't particularly care for anti-government rants."
O'Malley, a policy wonk, is appealing to that electorate, Hussey said. Ehrlich, though, is playing up a more casual, down-to-earth persona.
"There seems to be a difference in professionalism," Hussey said. "Ehrlich seems to be trying to position himself as a man of the people. He wants to stress O'Malley is an incumbent, O'Malley is elite.
"The appearance of a less-than-slick campaign is part campaign strategy and something he is using to shape the image voters will have of him."
But his arguably slower-paced campaign was consistent with his reputation as a governor who was not obsessed with the job, Meyers said.
"He hasn't had the strongest campaign in terms of effort or targeting voters," Meyers said. "Most successful politicians really want the job in their gut. They're willing to put themselves on the line."
Elections are won early in the campaign season, Meyers said, and O'Malley "has had a skillful election campaign that started the day he took office."
"It's hard for a challenger to overturn that," Meyers added.
According to the polls, Ehrlich's not.
O'Malley has a 10-point lead in an Oct. 24 poll by Rasmussen Reports, and the governor's approval rating has remained in the mid- to upper 40s since September 2008, according to an October poll by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. His disapproval rating exceeded 40 percent for the first time during that period.
"We've made tough choices and progress at the same time, and the people of our state are smart enough to see that," the governor said after a campaign stop Friday at a Rockville retirement facility.
Barth, though, said voters who look to the future and see what they can expect from the two candidates will vote for Ehrlich.
"The Democrats and independents who like Bob Ehrlich have to understand that it's perfectly appropriate to cross party lines and vote for him," Barth said.
But with almost 220,000 early voting ballots already cast, Meyers said, even an earth-shaking event might not be enough to swing the election for Ehrlich.