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In Md., O'Malley is clicking along

Friday, October 1, 2010; B2

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is, right now, in a place where a lot of his fellow Democrats around the country sure wish they were.

According to new Washington Post poll numbers, the state's voters are suffering from a malaise comparable to the rest of the nation's. Among likely voters, 49 percent feel that the state of Maryland is on the wrong track, compared to 40 percent who think things are moving in the right direction. Nearly 60 percent rate the state's economy as "poor" or "not so good," with a four-point margin of error.

Everywhere but Maryland, that's been the spark for an anti-incumbent inferno. And yet: 52 percent of likely voters in the state say they'll be pulling the lever for O'Malley anyway - that's 10 points better than his opponent, former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. His approval rating is at 57 percent among likely voters - the highest of his tenure.

Compare O'Malley's plight to that of fellow Democrat Adrian M. Fenty.

The incumbent D.C. mayor, a Post poll showed, had the opposite problem. In the District, the August poll indicated that residents' approval of the city's direction was at its highest point in a decade, but Fenty, burdened with high unfavorability ratings, was vanquished in the city primary earlier last month by nearly 10 percentage points.

What gives?

For that, we go to the phones.

Sometimes, it's not the economy, stupid. "I've gotta be honest, it's more of a feeling than anything else," said Philip, 41, a Montgomery County resident and registered Republican who has voted for Ehrlich in the past. (He did not want to share his full name because he is a government employee.)

He prefers O'Malley over Ehrlich despite thinking the state's on the wrong track.

"I've liked his past track record in Baltimore [as mayor]. Ehrlich has always struck me as being slick and not a lot of substance," Philip said, adding: "When you really get down to it, O'Malley has been showing leadership, when Ehrlich is more of a politician."

And to some voters, bombarded with media reports about lousy economic conditions nationwide, context matters.

Carolyn Kelly, a Baltimore resident, also thinks the state is on the wrong track but supports O'Malley.

"I think we're doing better than average," said Kelly, 44, adding that she gives O'Malley credit for that. And although she said she wasn't happy with the 2007 move to increase sales taxes from 5 percent to 6 percent, she expects O'Malley to do better with the budget.

"He sees that some people aren't happy," she said. "I think he may be willing to change."

Philip, like Kelly, said the economy is "much better than average" - especially in the D.C. suburbs - but he doesn't think O'Malley, Ehrlich or any governor could do much to affect the vagaries of the national economy. "I just think we're in a bad spot right now," he said. "I really think where I like to see the governors work is things like crime, traffic management, things like that."

Even among those folks who do consider economic conditions paramount, Ehrlich is lagging: The poll shows that Maryland voters consider the state economy to be more important than any other issue but they also don't think Ehrlich will do any better.

Of the 41 percent of likely voters who considered the state economy to be the most important issue in the elections, 51 percent prefer O'Malley, to Ehrlich's 43 percent. And among the voters, more trust O'Malley to do a better job on economic issues - 47 percent to 43 percent. Likely voters overall also trust O'Malley to do a better job than Ehrlich on improving the economy (45 percent to 41 percent), though they give Ehrlich a slight advantage on managing the state's budget deficit (40 percent to 43 percent).

Ehrlich now has less than five weeks now to chip away at the voters' notion that O'Malley is the best person to kick-start a sputtering state economy.

Witness Ehrlich's attempts earlier this week to embarrass O'Malley by disclosing a cache of e-mails obtained through a public records request. They show top O'Malley aides working to remove an unflattering jobs report from a state agency's Web site. One wrote that the report, describing a "stalled" economy, "was diametrically opposed to the discussed and eventually-approved messaging" coming from the governor's office.

Whether Ehrlich's e-mail revelations have had an effect on the race is unclear; the Post's poll had concluded before the story broke on Monday.

Here's Ehrlich's messaging: "Maryland's economy is stuck - even if Martin O'Malley doesn't want you to know it."

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