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Obama's role in Md. governor's race remains unclear as O'Malley visits White House

There's little wrong in Maryland that needs fixing, believes Gov. Martin O'Malley, at Oxon Hill High School.
There's little wrong in Maryland that needs fixing, believes Gov. Martin O'Malley, at Oxon Hill High School. (Bill O'leary)

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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010; 10:21 AM

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) on Monday will stand alongside President Obama as he signs the Small Business Jobs Act, his office says. The White House invitation appears to be a nod to O'Malley's role in helping to craft a slice of the $30 billion bill and in lobbying other governors to support it.

It offers a high-profile opportunity for O'Malley to counter Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s (R) campaign message that he would do more for small businesses if returned to power in Annapolis. But it might be an even bigger chance for O'Malley to appear with Obama - who remains far more popular in Maryland than nationally.

Monday's O'Malley-Obama encounter, however brief, raises anew a question of how involved the president might become in Washington's back yard to try to secure a win for O'Malley in Maryland's gubernatorial race.

After becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in 44 years, Obama's motorcade crisscrossed the Potomac repeatedly last year to campaign for the party's gubernatorial hopeful, Creigh Deeds. The president even attended a rally in the Norfolk area after the White House suggested Deeds had ignored campaign advice and polls predicted he would lose badly to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

This year, however, demands for Obama's time have multiplied. Virginia was one of only a handful of significant races last year. But scores of unsettled contests will determine the balance of power in Congress as well as control of a majority of state capitals. Obama is heading to the Midwest on Tuesday, where all but one Democratic gubernatorial incumbent is on the ropes and his travel log in recent weeks shows he has spent little time in areas where the party considers its candidates to be relatively safe bets.

Maryland still falls into that category for Democrats, according to most analysts. The race could be closer than O'Malley's six-percentage-point victory over Ehrlich four years ago. But the broader fundamentals remain stacked in the Democratic incumbent's favor. Democrats have a commanding a 2-to-1 majority among registered voters and O'Malley finished the primary with a near 3-to-1 money advantage that could allow him to buy far more air time and message more effectively in the election's closing weeks.

The upper hand hasn't stopped O'Malley from casting the race in increasingly hostile terms, and as an extension of the battle for Washington. At a unity breakfast Saturday in Prince George's County, he drew comparisons to last year's Republican victory in Virginia and the need to keep Obama from being flanked by insurgent Republicans on both sides of the Potomac.

"Our president is leading us and doing the right American thing of harnessing that change to make it our own for a better future for our kids. But the forces of fear, the forces of division, the forces of reaction, the forces of retreat are rising up and they want to surround our president with hostile governors, not only throughout the country, but boy, would they love - just like they did in the Civil War - to surround the nation's capital and our president with hostile governors on both sides of the Potomac," O'Malley said.

"Think about it, on the other side of the Potomac, when we finally, for the first time pulled behind our president to pass health care, and expand health care for all, what does the other side of the Potomac, the Republican side of the Potomac do? Their governor lines up, their lieutenant governor lines up, their attorney general sues, takes the lead in suing, and trying to pull our country back. What happens on your side of the Potomac? The governor applauds health care."

Taking a page from Deeds's message in the final weeks last year, O'Malley also has begun casting his race increasingly as a fight for Obama.

House Majority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) Saturday also framed the state's governorship as a critical stronghold that Democrats cannot afford to lose heading into 2012 and the party's effort to reelect Obama.

One national Democratic strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity, to freely discuss the party's chances in November, painted Maryland with a different war analogy.


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