O'Malley has 8-point lead over Ehrlich among registered voters

By John Wagner, Aaron C. Davis and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 10, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has an early lead in his bid for reelection but faces voters who are anxious about the economy and focused on issues that could help Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. reclaim his old job, according to a new Washington Post poll.

As the campaign begins in earnest, O'Malley (D) holds a 49 to 41 percent lead among registered voters, according to the poll. But among those who say they are certain to vote in November, the race is a dead heat, with both candidates drawing 47 percent.

The numbers suggest that voters could be surprisingly open to appeals from both sides, despite how well-known the two major candidates are. Nearly half say they are undecided or could change their minds before Election Day. The results also suggest a key to the race could be whether O'Malley is able to mobilize Democrats, particularly in vote-rich Prince George's and Montgomery counties, where he dominated Ehrlich (R) in 2006.

The poll reveals several potential advantages for Ehrlich, who lost to O'Malley four years ago, 53 to 46 percent. Ehrlich has the edge in voter trust on the state budget and taxes, and when it comes to the top issue, the economy, 43 percent trust the former governor to do a better job, 39 percent the current one. More than half of voters say the state is on the wrong track, and nearly half say O'Malley has not accomplished much in the top job.

Also, the political landscape is far different from the one Ehrlich faced four years ago, when he was the governor with high approval ratings running for reelection. The economy is now the most frequently cited issue, whereas education was the clear top issue in 2006. And the energy that was squarely behind Democrats nationally in 2006 and 2008 has diminished.

Ehrlich's attempted comeback has been inspired in part by a string of high-profile Republican victories in states that President Obama carried in 2008, including Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Ehrlich has said that after what happened in 2008, he thought his political career was over, but he has since come to believe that even left-leaning Maryland could be receptive to a more conservative candidate, given the national political mood.

Still, O'Malley maintains several advantages running as an incumbent in a heavily Democratic state. He has a 58 percent job-approval rating -- his highest in Washington Post polls since becoming governor -- and seems to have weathered the dour national mood better than many counterparts.

More voters also say O'Malley understands their problems and can be better trusted than Ehrlich on education, the environment and crime.

On the campaign trail, both candidates have sought to parlay their strengths. Ehrlich is making near-daily visits to small businesses that have shed jobs during the recession, saying O'Malley-backed tax increases are partly to blame for their problems. In the poll, 62 percent of voters say their family's taxes have gone up in recent years.

O'Malley has cast the race in broader terms, arguing that he is better suited to keep "moving Maryland forward." Although he is stressing the importance of job creation, O'Malley also highlights a No. 1 ranking received by the state's schools and lower crime rates. On Friday, his campaign launched the first sharply critical ad, a radio spot seeking to undermine Ehrlich's claims about his fiscal stewardship during his four years in office.

Securing the base

A key to the race might be Obama voters -- largely Democrats who came out in 2008 for the president but are not yet sold on O'Malley. The poll found somewhat more enthusiasm among Ehrlich voters, with his supporters more apt than O'Malley's to be satisfied with their choices and committed to voting in November.

O'Malley still must also win over voters such as Al Joyner of Randallstown, a retired University of Maryland social worker who voted for the governor four years ago but is now noncommittal.

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