O'Malley gains ground over Ehrlich in Maryland governor's race, poll shows

Speaking with The Washington Post's Aaron Davis and John Wagner, Md. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and his opponent, former Md. governor Bob Ehrlich (R), talk about their record on taxes.
By Aaron C. Davis, John Wagner and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:53 PM

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has opened a significant lead over former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as newly energized Democrats have turned what appeared to be a dead heat into a double-digit advantage for O'Malley, a Washington Post poll has found.

Less than five weeks before the election, 52 percent of those most likely to vote support O'Malley, and 41 percent back Ehrlich. In May, likely voters were divided evenly between the contenders.

Ehrlich has the support of almost every GOP voter in the state, and he is winning independents by a wide margin in his effort to reclaim the Maryland governorship he lost four years ago. But that combined slice of the electorate, which is propelling outsider insurgents elsewhere, appears to be too little in Maryland. The former governor and congressman is failing to draw the cross-party appeal that vaulted him to victory in 2002.

Instead, despite widespread concern among Marylanders about the economy and direction of the state, Democrats have moved solidly behind O'Malley. And he is more popular now than at any time a Post poll has been taken since 2004.

In recent months, O'Malley has moved to invigorate his party's base by adopting a campaign theme that asks voters to reject a return to Republican control. Four out of five Maryland Democrats say they are enthusiastic about voting for him, according to the poll. O'Malley has also emerged as the candidate more trusted by voters on the top issue in the race: Maryland's economy.

Ehrlich has limited room to attract voters on economic issues. When it comes to dealing with Maryland's $1.1 billion budget shortfall, 43 percent of likely voters say they trust Ehrlich; 40 percent side with O'Malley.

The growing gap revealed by the Post poll reframes what had come to be viewed as a potential horse race backed by wealthy national interests into a question of what Ehrlich can do to turn things around in the final weeks of the campaign.

For O'Malley, the big lead could create another problem: keeping voters engaged. If his supporters come to see his reelection as inevitable, they may think it's less important to vote.

"I think it's close. I plan to vote for him," said Gerry Bennefield, 65, of Brandywine. "I think he's in tune with the regular people instead of big business."

That description echoed a portrayal of O'Malley and criticism of Ehrlich in a Democratic TV ad that began airing last week in the Washington region. Bennefield, a Democrat and retired food service director, said she'd seen the ad, but it wasn't why she had decided to vote for O'Malley.

Bennefield said she was impressed with the way O'Malley has kept a four-year freeze on in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities and with the way he made some budget cuts.

"More than anything else, I think he's been honest about where we are at," she said. "Things are pretty rough. I'm hoping for a turnaround, you know, but you just got to tighten your belt."

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