Obama's planned appearance at O'Malley rally reflects broader strategic alliance

By Aaron C. Davis and John Wagner
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 10:26 PM

A Democratic incumbent who says President Obama doesn't get the credit he deserves for "saving us" with stimulus spending, or who gushes about Obama's "brilliance," "foresight" and "conviction," might brace for a Republican opponent to spike the remarks back over the net.

Not in Maryland. Almost every time Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) steps in front of a camera or crowd, the Obama accolades flow free. No challenge, no return - just silence from former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

Obama's rally Thursday for O'Malley and Maryland Democrats in Prince George's County underscores how O'Malley has aligned himself with a man who wasn't always his first choice for president, and how safe that strategy has remained in a state where Obama is far more popular than he is nationally.

"The president is going there because Maryland is one place where he should be able to fire up the base and get them engaged," said Jennifer Duffy, senior analyst with the Cook Political Report. Maryland is such a blue state that Democrats don't need much, "but they do need the base to show up," Duffy said.

Maryland Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2 to 1 , and according to a Washington Post poll last week, the state's Democratic base is closing ranks behind the governor: O'Malley leads Ehrlich among likely voters by 11 percentage points.

The poll, which was released after the president had committed to the campaign stop for O'Malley, showed a larger margin of voters favoring O'Malley than in previous polls. But without Obama on the ballot, dismal turnout remains a key concern - especially for Democrats in heavily African American pockets of the state, such as Baltimore and Prince George's County. About 94 percent of Maryland's African Americans approve of Obama, according to the Post poll.

Ehrlich, who has campaigned little in Prince George's and has tried not to antagonize pro-Obama voters, tried Wednesday to play down the significance of the president's visit.

He told reporters that he expected the Obama rally would help O'Malley raise money but not do much to affect the race.

"It's what presidents do," Ehrlich said. "It hasn't had much impact on races around the country."

Republican National Committee spokesman Parish Braden said: "Another hollow stump speech from President Obama won't create a single job for the more than 216,000 Marylanders currently out of work."

Maryland Democrats seemed wide-eyed in anticipation of the visit.

In an e-mail soliciting contributions Tuesday night, Susan Turnbull, head of the state's Democratic Party, said that if Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D-Md.), Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and O'Malley are ruled winners early on election night, it could affect the momentum in favor of Democrats nationwide as voters continue to go the polls in later time zones.

"The nation will be watching. We need to make a statement that Maryland Democrats can't be stopped," the e-mail read.

Turnbull said she also sees a nexus between an O'Malley win and a big role for Maryland in the 2012 presidential race.

"From a political standpoint, if Maryland gets through election night as we expect. . .we will be in position to be an export state for volunteers in 2012. It's to the president's advantage, to everyone's advantage, to have a very good team reelected in Maryland."

Two years ago, it wasn't clear that Obama and O'Malley would be in such a potentially symbiotic relationship. O'Malley was one of the first governors in the country to endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But after Clinton ended her campaign, O'Malley began campaigning for Obama, and by the time he was elected president, O'Malley was working to ingratiate himself with the president and his administration.

After Democrats in Richmond lost control last year of the Virginia governor's mansion, O'Malley stepped up efforts to make Maryland the go-to spot for administration officials to hold events within driving distance of Washington.

O'Malley also took every opportunity to say that his policy priorities lined up with Obama's. Last week, Obama recognized O'Malley at a White House ceremony for working to craft a slice of the small-business lending act.

O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said that O'Malley's loyalties during the 2008 presidential race had become irrelevant. "I don't think it's been really important to either the president or the governor. They have shown the ability to work together on very important issues."

davisa@washpost.com wagnerj@washpost.com

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