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By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 2, 2006

Election Day will offer Maryland voters a chance to choose a new U.S. senator, state comptroller and attorney general and to decide whether to keep the state's Republican governor for a second term.

The election could prove to be a test of the gains Republicans made -- winning the governor's mansion and more seats in the General Assembly -- four years ago in this Democratic state. Or will the GOP cede ground in a year when the national winds are blowing strong for Democrats?

The governor's race features two of Maryland's best-known politicians, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the state's first GOP chief executive in a generation, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat.

Ehrlich has sought to turn the race into a referendum on the candidates' records, saying he has been an agent of change in Annapolis while Baltimore has languished under O'Malley's leadership. Ehrlich has run a barrage of television ads highlighting crime and low-performing schools in Maryland's largest city.

O'Malley, who has led in the polls, has defended what he calls a record of progress tackling urban woes and has portrayed Ehrlich as out of touch with working-class families. Amid a national climate in which President Bush is unpopular, O'Malley has tried to play up Ehrlich's ties to the Republican president.

The two candidates have spent most of the race fighting through the media. They met for televised debates twice, both on Oct. 14. Both were marked by scathing assessments of the opponent's record.

O'Malley introduced the theme of "two Bob Ehrlichs," which he has continued to press. According to O'Malley, one Ehrlich sounds moderate and makes promises during an election year to address education, health care and other issues, and the other Ehrlich governs very differently.

Ehrlich, meanwhile, is spending the closing weeks organizing events that point to a "Tale of Two Records," saying his is far superior on issues such as fiscal management and education. Ehrlich also moved toward positive TV ads recently, touting his support for stem cell research, an initiative to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and other ways in which he says he is "changing Maryland for the better."

The race also features Green Party candidate Ed Boyd and Populist candidate Christopher Driscoll.

The three candidates running to succeed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D) offer stark contrasts in style and substance, on issues including the Iraq war, health care, stem cell research and abortion.

Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, a wonkish legislative technician, has served four decades in politics, including a stint as speaker of the House of Delegates and 20 years in Congress.

Republican Michael S. Steele, a charismatic campaigner, was the first African American elected statewide when he became lieutenant governor in 2003, and before that he was chairman of the Maryland GOP.

Independent candidate Kevin Zeese -- who has the support of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties -- is an antiwar activist who has refused campaign contributions from political action committees because of what he calls "corporate control of government."

For the two major-party candidates, the challenge has been winning over black Democrats in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1. In a crowded September primary, Cardin narrowly defeated former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, but he fared poorly among black voters. He has tried to reach out through surrogates, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), while trying to prevent Steele from swaying African Americans to cross party lines.

In his campaign commercials, Steele has presented himself as an independent thinker who is not beholden to either political party. He has tried to turn Cardin's long legislative experience into a weakness, portraying him as an entrenched politician.

Cardin has reminded voters that Steele supported Bush's policies, including a veto of a bill to expand federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and he called Cardin's vote against going into Iraq "wrongheaded."

Zeese supports embryonic stem cell research and abortion rights. He has called for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and a national health-care plan.

In the state comptroller's race, incumbent William Donald Schaefer was defeated in the Democratic primary, leaving the field to Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot (D) and Baltimore business school dean Anne McCarthy (R).

Longtime Attorney General J. Joseph Curran is retiring, and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler won the Democratic primary. The GOP candidate is Frederick County State's Attorney Scott L. Rolle.

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