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In Maryland governor's race, keys may be in D.C. suburbs

Maryland gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley, left, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., then the incumbent, met in September 2006 at an AARP forum in Timonium. Both campaigns focused on the Baltimore area.
Maryland gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley, left, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., then the incumbent, met in September 2006 at an AARP forum in Timonium. Both campaigns focused on the Baltimore area. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)

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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) will travel to the heart of Montgomery County on Wednesday to kick off another Maryland governor's race against Martin O'Malley (D).

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Although the candidates might be the same as those who ran four years ago, this contest is starting in a different place: Ehrlich's appearance in Rockville is an early indication that the keys to victory for both candidates are in the Washington region.

Four years ago, the race never seemed to stray too far from Baltimore. Both campaigns set up headquarters in that region. The only two debates of the contest were held there. And it's where most of the negative TV ads ran. Ehrlich, a former Baltimore area congressman who was then the incumbent, pummeled O'Malley about his tenure as the city's mayor.

This year, Ehrlich will enter the race with hopes of improving dramatically on his dismal 2006 showing in voter-rich and heavily Democratic Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which together are home to nearly one in three Maryland voters.

The 110,000 independent voters in Montgomery -- nearly a quarter of all of the state's independents -- are attractive targets at a time when Republicans have appealed to similar blocs to win races in Massachusetts and other blue states. Ehrlich advisers say they think he can also pick up significantly more votes than in 2006 among Montgomery's white men, his strongest demographic statewide four years ago.

Ehrlich plans to aggressively appeal to the small-business community, including Montgomery's high-tech sector, which he says has been stifled by tax increases and other initiatives backed by O'Malley and the Democratic-dominated legislature.

O'Malley's biggest challenge might be to replicate his success in Prince George's, where voters angry at President George W. Bush turned out in droves in 2006, delivering nearly 79 percent of the county's total votes.

Democratic registration in the county has risen, but it remains to be seen whether O'Malley can generate the same excitement this year. A hotly contested race for the Prince George's executive will essentially have been resolved by September's Democratic primary, and some leaders in the majority African American county have been slow to rally behind O'Malley.

O'Malley aides say his campaign is preparing to aggressively promote Maryland's new early-voting law, which provides a six-day window to cast ballots before Election Day, in an effort to bolster Democratic turnout.

That is just one way that aides say they hope to capitalize on multimillion-dollar war chests built by O'Malley and the state Democratic Party in the past four years, a period in which Ehrlich has been idle and the Maryland GOP has struggled to stay afloat financially. O'Malley aides also hint that President Obama could make multiple appearances with the governor during his campaign.

"We will spend a lot of time there," Ehrlich said of the Washington area, where he said he plans to emphasize traffic, jobs and economic development. "You don't have to be a political scientist to figure out that Montgomery and Prince George's and Howard are vote-rich and that voters there are very sophisticated."

At a recent gathering of Montgomery Republicans, a top Ehrlich adviser told the group that Ehrlich considers the county a linchpin in his campaign. There is wide speculation that he could pick a running mate from Montgomery.

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