Candidate O'Malley reaches out to forge alliance with Obama in divisive climate

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has planted trees with President Obama's agriculture secretary on a cattle farm near Westminster. He joined Obama's health and education secretaries at a swine flu symposium in Bethesda.

When the homeland security secretary needed a backdrop for an announcement, O'Malley offered the Baltimore harbor. For Vice President Biden, O'Malley (D) had a bus facility in Landover and a historic train station in Laurel.

When Obama went to Annapolis to deliver the Naval Academy's commencement address, O'Malley angled to introduce him. He stood by the president, too, at recent events at Andrews Air Force Base and a union hall in Lanham.

And last week, although the president wasn't there, O'Malley sung Obama's praises as Maryland broke ground on a $25 million bridge replacement -- the state's largest transportation project using federal stimulus dollars.

"We rallied around our president, and now we are creating jobs," O'Malley said as he stood at the site of the Randallstown project, which he jokingly suggested be named the "Barack Obama Bridge."

Whatever qualms other Democrats might have about associating with Obama and his policies this election year, O'Malley, who is running for reelection, is doing all he can to embrace him.

In the 16 months since Obama took office, O'Malley has sought to parlay his shared policy priorities and proximity to Washington into an alliance with a man who was not his first choice for president. O'Malley says his overtures have been about strengthening his ability to govern -- the Obama administration makes funding and other decisions that greatly affect Maryland.

But in coming months, with Obama and several of his Cabinet members expected to make campaign appearances alongside O'Malley, the benefits will turn to the political.

Part of the calculation is simple math. Voters across the country have soured on Democrats since Obama was elected in 2008 and continue to be anxious about the economy. But in heavily Democratic Maryland, the president is highly popular with the voters O'Malley must energize to survive his rematch with former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Those groups include African Americans, who make up a larger percentage of the electorate in Maryland than in any state outside the Deep South.

A Washington Post poll last week showed O'Malley with an 8 percentage-point lead among registered voters in Maryland. But among those who said they are certain to show up on Election Day, the race was a dead heat.

No small part of the difference can be attributed to "Obama voters," a group that includes a large number of black and younger voters, many of whom were turned on by the promise of something different in 2008 and have yet to tune in to a governor's race featuring two familiar candidates.

Through November, Democrats in the 37 states with governor's races will have to weigh the risks and benefits of appearing with a president whose policies have divided the country. Democratic strategists say Obama can be helpful in drawing out the Democratic base in almost every state -- which is particularly important in midterm elections, when fewer people typically vote.

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