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

Nancy Powell, 73, a registered Democrat and poll respondent who lives in Bethesda, fits the profile of a voter Ehrlich had hoped to win over. Powell said she has voted for "civic-minded Republicans" in the past, including former long-serving representative Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).

Powell said she is only "moderately enthusiastic" about O'Malley and might have considered voting for a Republican for governor if the right candidate had emerged. O'Malley "hasn't really captured my imagination," Powell said, "but he seems to have been pretty steady in a difficult time."

With moderate Democrats such as Powell lining up for O'Malley, Ehrlich's potential path to victory is growing increasingly narrow.

The Republican is winning handily among the state's independent voters, 54 to 34 percent, but there aren't enough of them in Maryland to tip the balance.

Fully 57 percent of all voters in the state are registered Democrats, and half of all probable voters identify as Democrats more generally, or about double the proportion saying they're closer to the GOP.

In 2002, Ehrlich was lifted over his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in large part by scoring 22 percent among Democrats, according to a Washington Post exit poll that year. Ehrlich, in his losing reelection bid four years later, mustered 15 percent of the Democratic vote. Now, only 10 percent of self-identified Democrats say they back Ehrlich in the rematch.

For Ehrlich to win this year, political observers have suggested that he must run a nearly perfect campaign, ramping up his performance from four years ago not only in Democratic bastions such as Montgomery County but in several other places. The poll suggests Ehrlich is falling short on all counts.

Ehrlich launched his campaign with an acknowledgment that he must improve his standing in Montgomery, the state's largest jurisdiction. He kicked off his campaign there in April, picked a running mate from the county in June and has made several high-profile visits since, pitching his pro-business message in a jurisdiction with an economy less dependent on the federal government than it used to be.

Yet Ehrlich attracts only 27 percent of the Montgomery vote in the Post poll, and O'Malley is drawing 70 percent. That's less than the 37 percent of Montgomery voters that the Republican drew in his 2006 loss and 38 percent in his 2002 victory.

There and elsewhere Ehrlich has talked extensively about taxes, but voters say that's not the most important issue for the next governor. About 41 percent of likely voters say the state's economy is the No. 1 issue; taxes are tied for second place with education, at 16 percent.

Ehrlich has said that his goal for Montgomery is in the low 40s. Although heavily Democratic, the jurisdiction, because of its size, is home to more Republicans than any other county in the state but one, and it has far more independents than any other Maryland county.

Perhaps most crucial for Ehrlich is replicating his 2002 performance - or at least coming close - in the Baltimore suburbs, which are home to many blue-collar Democrats who have demonstrated a willingness to vote for a Republican.

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