Gov. Martin O’Malley isn’t on the ballot this year in Maryland, but he is casting a long shadow over the race to succeed him.

Leading candidates Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler are staking their campaigns on whether Marylanders are yearning for a new direction — even though policy differences between the two Democrats are not that stark.

Brown, the front-runner, promises to “build on the successes” of O’Malley’s eight years in office. Appearing at a recent fundraiser on Brown’s behalf, former president Bill Clinton echoed the theme, saying, “It’s important, when people have got a deal that’s working, to build on it and not reverse it.”

Gansler, in contrast, is hammering against the O’Malley administration’s tax increases, as well as the botched rollout of its health insurance exchange, faulting Brown and “the Democratic establishment” in Annapolis for both. “Everything that is not going well in Maryland, the lieutenant governor has been at the seat of power and not addressed,” he said.

Gansler, who is trailing in the polls, seems to be struggling to gain traction with that argument among Democrats likely to vote in the June 24 primary, most of whom approve of the job O’Malley (D) is doing. But analysts say Gansler and the third major candidate, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), have little choice but to try to convince voters that something new is needed.

“It’s either that or try to be more like O’Malley than Brown, which is difficult,” said Laslo Boyd, a longtime consultant and analyst of Maryland politics. Brown, he said, is “trying to get some of the reflected glory. And it seems to be working.”

Staying the course

At political events around the state, party activists say O’Malley’s leadership — and whether to continue on that course — is a key issue for voters.

“People who I know are voting for the lieutenant governor are pleased with the direction that the state is moving,” said Joseph L. Kitchen Jr., 28, who lives in Cheverly and is president of the Maryland Young Democrats.

For the most part, Kitchen said, Brown voters believe the O’Malley tax increases were necessary to make investments in transportation and other priorities.

Gansler voters, on the other hand, tend to think “we have invested at the expense of working-class families,” Kitchen said, while Mizeur partisans want the state to move in a more progressive direction. Mizeur, of Takoma Park, has proposed several policies well to the left of her Democratic rivals, including the legalization and taxation of marijuana to pay for expanded pre-kindergarten programs.

At an annual Democratic Party gala last Wednesday, which drew nearly 700 party activists to a ballroom in Upper Marlboro, Gansler was the only speaker in a parade of politicians who did not offer effusive praise for O’Malley’s tenure. (Mizeur, who has been more discerning in her criticism of the administration, did not attend.) The governor’s two terms have included the legalization of same-sex marriage, the abolishment of the death penalty, the extension of in-state college tuition to the children of undocumented workers and, most recently, an increase in the minimum wage.

“Martin, you’ve been outstanding,” Brown said.

The four Republicans vying for their party’s nomination are calling for a sharp change in direction — with lower taxes and policies more friendly to businesses.

One of them, Anne Arundel County businessman Larry Hogan, lumps Brown and Gansler in with O’Malley, even though Gansler is a separately elected official.

As he launched his campaign, Hogan said, “The people of Maryland simply cannot afford another four years of O’Malley/Brown/Gansler, tax-and-spend, politics as usual.”

Among Democratic voters, however, there is no obvious sign of the fatigue that can accompany a long-serving governor — the unpopularity of then-governor Parris N. Glendening (D), for example, is one of the reasons often cited for the general-election loss of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) in 2002.

A Washington Post poll in February found that O’Malley’s job approval among Democrats was 79 percent. Among all voters, 55 percent of Marylanders approved of the job O’Malley is doing.

Brown — O’Malley’s preferred successor — has made little effort during the campaign to set himself apart from his boss.

“He’s absolutely running for a third O’Malley term,” Gansler said in an interview. “I think he’d be the first to tell you that.”

Brown won’t exactly tell you that — but he makes no apologies for wanting to stay the course he and O’Malley have charted, albeit with some “added emphasis” on certain areas, including expanding pre-kindergarten education and improving the state’s business climate.

“You build on what’s working,” Brown said.

The outsider candidate

Charles E. Graham, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26, said Gansler’s outsider status was among the reasons the union decided to endorse Gansler this month, even though most labor groups are siding with Brown.

“If you’re satisfied with the last eight years with the O’Malley-Brown administration, and what they’ve brought to Maryland, then Doug is not your candidate,” Graham said. “He’s somebody with enthusiasm, energy and new ideas who would take Annapolis out of its comfort zone.”

As an example, Graham cited Gansler’s plan to cut the corporate income tax — an idea that has been criticized as too costly by other Democrats in the race. Given the need for jobs, it’s something the state should be willing to try, Graham said.

Gansler said there have been “some very good things” that have happened during O’Malley’s years, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. But he argues that “a fresh set of eyes would be a positive development,” and he noted that most Annapolis-based interest groups are backing Brown’s campaign.

“When I take over the governor’s mansion, we’re not going to be beholden to anyone,” Gansler said.

Brown, in an interview, said Gansler’s campaign has been notable for its negativity, not only toward the O’Malley administration but also toward others who have worked with the governor to improve the schools, fight crime and protect the environment.

“Doug Gansler seems to be the biggest cheerleader for failure in Maryland,” Brown said. “He’s unwilling to acknowledge the progress we’ve made.”

Brown’s campaign has issued 15 policy papers, most of which recount steps taken by the O’Malley administration on a particular issue before detailing new ideas. Even as he proposes full-day pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds and a stepped-up emphasis on “career technology training” in high schools, he is careful to mention that Maryland schools have been ranked No. 1 in the country for several years.

“We’re not looking at our education system and saying, ‘That’s broken, we’ve got to take an entirely different direction,’ ” Brown said.

Ruth Eaddy, a Charles County massage therapist, first became impressed with Brown while volunteering for O’Malley’s 2010 reelection campaign. She is now captain of Brown’s phone bank team in her county.

“I view this as a continuation of progress,” said Eaddy, 44. “I was with Anthony Brown from the start, because it’s my philosophy [that] if you’re going in the right direction, why would you want to change in the middle?”

But being a fan of O’Malley does not always translate into support for his deputy.

Silver Spring residents Bob and Lyn Doyle, both 73, attended a Democratic forum recently in Prince George’s County, where the contenders for lieutenant governor spoke. They both said they like what O’Malley has done as governor. But while Bob Doyle plans to vote for Brown, Lyn Doyle said she is seeking a change.

The problems facing Maryland’s working class require fixes that would most easily come with a major shakeup of the state leadership, Lyn Doyle said. That’s why she is supporting Mizeur.

“She seems energetic enough to tackle these problems,” Doyle said. “I think she’s above the fray — and I’m always for the underdog.”

Arelis Hernandez and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.