One day into his campaign for governor, Douglas M. Duncan was eating cinnamon French toast with teachers, addressing the state teachers union and making stops at two universities on the Eastern Shore.
If that wasn't enough to signal that education would be the emphasis of his campaign, the Montgomery county executive made that abundantly clear in his announcement speech Thursday, which mentioned schools or education 48 times in less than 22 minutes.
"I've talked with the good people from every part of this state, and everyone wants the same thing: good schools," Duncan told the 800 delegates from the Maryland State Teachers Association here Friday.
The initiatives that Duncan and his Democratic primary opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, will propose to achieve that goal could well define the fledgling 2006 gubernatorial campaign.
"If one issue is going to mobilize voters in a Democratic primary, this is it," said Keith Haller, president of the independent polling and research firm Potomac Inc.
That is especially true in voter-rich Prince George's County, Haller said, where his surveys show that among voters, the issue outranks all others by a four-to-one margin. Duncan has outlined several education initiatives in the stump speech he has delivered nine times since formally announcing his candidacy Thursday morning, and he probably will raise them again in his five-day, 1,350-mile tour of the state in a 38-foot recreational vehicle.
The proposals include an "education-first" budget, which would pay for school initiatives before addressing any other aspect of the budget. He has called for a reduction in college tuition. And he has suggested a plan by which companies will get first crack at state contracts if they provide time for employees to volunteer at schools.
At the teachers convention, he spoke of "real pension reform," an issue that could be key to an endorsement from the powerful 62,000-member union. O'Malley will speak to the convention Saturday morning about proposals to recruit and retain good instructors, including improvements in pensions.
Through the course of the campaign, the mayor said he also will offer plans to make college more affordable, advocate more alternative schools for violent students and push other measures related to school safety.
The focus on education gives Duncan a chance to spotlight Montgomery County's high-performing schools and contrast them with Baltimore's -- which have the lowest test scores in the state.
"It allows him to distinguish himself from O'Malley without attacking him directly," said Donald Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
The mayor routinely praises progress in the schools, rather than mentioning the low scores. When he took office in 1999, O'Malley now tells audiences, not one grade was scoring proficient in reading and math tests. Last year, a majority of the city's first-, second-, third- and fourth-graders did.
"We are on our way, if we can keep up this pace of improvement," O'Malley said in an interview Friday, while campaigning in Prince George's.
O'Malley campaign manager Jonathan Epstein said he doesn't believe the issue of education cuts favorably for Duncan.
"People look for leaders who are willing to take on the toughest challenges and show progress," Epstein said. "There's no question the schools in Montgomery County are solid, but the mayor and thousands of parents in Baltimore are proud of the achievements our children have been able to make."
The education debate also begins the quest for one of the primary campaign's more crucial endorsements, that of the teachers association.
"The candidate that addresses the pension issue is the one that will get my vote," said Gretchen Howard, a Montgomery social studies teacher.
Under the current state formula, Maryland teachers receive one of the worst pension packages in the country, said Del. Charles E. Barkley (D-Montgomery), a teacher who has championed a total overhaul of the pension system. Most retiring teachers are entitled to take home 38 percent of their annual salaries after 30 years of service.
Barkley said the union has not developed its final plan, but in the past, teachers have pushed for a pension that increases 2 percent for every year worked, so fully vested teachers would receive 60 percent of their salaries upon retirement.
O'Malley said he plans to address the pension issue in his speech Saturday. "We're getting clobbered," he said. "I think we're actually behind Guam and Puerto Rico."
Duncan's loudest applause during his speech came when he said, "The time has come to stop paying lip service to pension reform. . . . Maryland should not be the fifth-wealthiest state with a pension system rated dead last."
Barbara Stroud, a high school health and English teacher at Mark Twain School in Rockville, said she'll need to hear more.
"Talk is talk," she said. "I want to know what he'll do specifically."