For environmentalists, the next governor of Maryland will have a hard act to follow. After all, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has blocked key road projects, spent millions to preserve land and championed new rules for chicken farmers in the name of environmental protection.
Already, the candidates to succeed him -- Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- caution that the state's looming $1.7 billion shortfall may keep them from putting away as much land for preservation as Glendening did, at least initially.
And both are supporting the proposed intercounty connector through Montgomery County, a project Glendening dismissed because of its implications for the natural habitat.
Even so, conservation groups have fallen in solidly behind Townsend, describing their choice as one between a lieutenant governor who served in one of the most environmentally friendly administrations in Maryland history and a congressman with an "extreme anti-environmental voting record."
"The stakes are really high in this election," said Sue Brown, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, which raised nearly $100,000 to fund radio and television ads that target Ehrlich's environmental record.
Ehrlich's campaign argues that his record is being distorted.
Environmentalists "can easily trot out a long list of his votes they considered anti-environment," said Ehrlich spokesman Paul E. Schurick. "But they're not embracing [Townsend] for her record, because she has none. There's nothing there to rate or score or evaluate."
With polls showing the governor's race extremely tight, environmentalists have shifted their e-mail trees, phone banks and get-out-the-vote volunteers into overdrive.
For the first time, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action have supplemented their usual canvassing and leaflet efforts with paid television and radio ads, particularly in voter-rich Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
Marylanders who identify clean air, land conservation and the Chesapeake Bay among their top concerns are among the state's most reliable voters: Seventy-seven percent cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election and 90 percent in the 2000 elections, pollsters and environmental groups said.
"The hard-core environmentalists and activists are an important part of Townsend's base, just as the business community is for Ehrlich," said Larry Harris, a principal with Mason-Dixon Polling. "It is razor thin at this point, and every vote counts."
In their ads, conservation groups point out that Ehrlich has voted against measures that would have lowered allowable levels of arsenic in public drinking water, increased fuel efficiency and toughened environmental enforcement measures. Ehrlich also voted to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the groups point out, and supported the Bush administration's plans to modify the federal Clean Air Act, a proposal that prompted one senior Environmental Protection Agency official to resign in protest.
"A vote for Ehrlich is a vote for polluted air, contaminated water and taxpayer handouts to polluters," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth Action, which endorsed Townsend this week and warned voters that Ehrlich poses a "clear and present danger."
Schurick dismissed the groups' criticism of Ehrlich's voting record in Congress and the Maryland General Assembly as "election-year rhetoric" and urged voters to consider his priorities for the environment.
"A Republican hasn't been elected in this state for 36 years. The other side has grown expert at causing fear among interest groups," Schurick said. "But they're telling half the story on his environmental record."
Ehrlich, a sponsor of legislation in Congress to fund $660 million in sewage system upgrades, said he would make that a top priority to reducing the top source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, he has said he would hold a summit to explore ways to make it easier for poultry farmers to comply with regulations on waste disposal. Ehrlich also would continue state land conservation programs, although probably not at the current levels because of reduced state revenue.
Townsend has no legislative voting record, but she said she nonetheless has experience with environmental issues. She said that one of her proudest accomplishments was being a sewage attorney for the Maryland Department of the Environment, responsible for ensuring that municipal waste systems were meeting pollution limits.
"I am not Kathleen-come-lately for the environment," she said, as supporters stood behind her at a rally this week with signs reading "Something is FISHY about Bob Ehrlich!"
She added: "I am proud to be part of the administration that set not only the national but international standard for smart growth."
Unspoken, however, was the disappointment over her support for Montgomery County's connector road, which congestion-weary commuters have clamored for. Both Townsend and Ehrlich also support Metro's so-called Purple Line, which would link Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Townsend supports the proposed route running between Bethesda and Silver Spring, while Ehrlich supports one farther north.
To support Townsend, volunteers have distributed trunk-loads of pamphlets and signs and joined forces with a health care group to buy radio ads that depict Ehrlich as "hazardous to your health."
By comparison, attacks by Ehrlich or his supporters against Townsend's environmental credentials have been limited.
Carol Arscott, a Maryland pollster with GOP ties, said she doubted that the environmentalists' attacks would draw staunch Republican voters away from Ehrlich. "Endorsements by groups matter less to Republican voters than they do Democrats," Arscott said. "But if it boils down to a get-out-the-vote effort, then everything matters."