Republican gubernatorial candidates David Craig, left, Ron George, Larry Hogan and Charles Lollar wait for a Republican gubernatorial primary debate to begin at Maryland Public Television's studios in Owings Mills, Md., on June 2. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The band took a break from pumping out pop songs. The kids stopped bouncing down the inflatable slide and getting their faces painted. And as the adults in the pavilion chowed down on hot dogs, hamburgers and macaroni salad, they turned their attention to the host of the family-style picnic.

Anne Arundel County businessman Larry Hogan — one of four Republicans seeking his party’s nomination for governor of Maryland — acknowledged the challenges of running in a state where Democrats hold a more than 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration.

But Hogan ticked off several reasons to be optimistic this fall, including a spate of tax increases passed under the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) that he said has left voters clamoring for a different direction.

“The people of Maryland are so fed up that we are going to win this election,” Hogan told an Edgewater audience of more than 200 people, who on Sunday sat at tables adorned with balloons in the Maryland state flag colors of red, black and gold. “We’re going to roll back as many of these 40 tax hikes as we possibly can.”

This year’s GOP primary has turned into a contest over who is best positioned to recapture the magic of 2002, the year Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first Republican in a generation to prevail over a Democrat in a Maryland governor’s race.

A Washington Post poll released this week showed Hogan leading among likely GOP voters in the June 24 primary, with the support of 35 percent. He is followed by Harford County Executive David R. Craig with 19 percent, Charles County businessman Charles Lollar with 13 percent and Del. Ronald A. George (Anne Arundel) with 5 percent.

In contrast to the bitter Democratic race, the Republican primary has been a relatively congenial, low-dollar affair, with the four hopefuls raising and spending just a fraction of what the leading candidates in the other party have.

Craig, a 65-year-old former teacher, is emphasizing his experience. He has held a string of local and state offices since 1979, when he was elected to the City Council in his home town of Havre de Grace. Although his campaign has lacked pizazz, Craig has landed some of the bigger endorsements in the race, including that of Ellen Sauerbrey, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 1994 and 1998.

George, an Annapolis jewelry store owner and former soap opera actor, argues that his business acumen gives him a leg up in a GOP field of candidates who all agree that the state’s business climate has suffered under O’Malley. George, 60, has also sought to make a virtue of his ability to work with Democrats in the legislature on government reform legislation as well as his history of counseling troubled youths.

Lollar, a 42-year-old Marine Reservist, has been most overt in his outreach to Democrats, a recognition that the GOP nominee will need to broaden his appeal considerably to have a chance of prevailing in November. He has participated in a couple dozen candidate forums with his GOP rivals — the latest of which took place Thursday — but also ventured to several events they have not.

On Sunday night, for example, Lollar, who is African American, joined the three Democratic gubernatorial candidates at a well-attended forum geared toward African immigrants in Maryland. He made an appeal similar to the one he has offered before other minority groups during the campaign.

“For years, I’ve seen politician after politician after politician stand up and say things to you to make you so satisfied and happy for a moment, it’s like a sugar rush,” said Lollar, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010. “It’s time for you all to demand better.”

Hogan, meanwhile, has argued that his blend of experience makes him the ideal candidate to be his party’s nominee.

He runs a real-estate business in Anne Arundel, and he held a Cabinet-level job in Ehrlich’s administration. As appointments secretary, he was responsible for steering thousands of people into government jobs and positions on state boards and commissions.

Hogan, the 58-year-old son of a former congressman, founded Change Maryland, a group launched in 2011 that is a watchdog and critic of the O’Malley administration. Hogan’s detractors say the group also has acted as a vehicle for him to prepare to run for governor. Craig and George filed a complaint last month with the State Board of Elections over Hogan’s use of Change Maryland, marking the only real acrimony in the GOP race.

In line on two fronts

On the campaign trail, the thrust of the message from all of the Republicans has been similar: Improve the state’s business climate and cut taxes.

Craig and Lollar want to eliminate the state’s personal income tax, phasing it out over five years. George promises to grant “emergency” income tax relief of 10 percent to Marylanders by April.

The candidates have promised several other tax cuts as well, including one to Maryland’s corporate income tax. Craig wants to reduce or possibly eliminate that tax. George says he would cut the rate from 8.25 percent to 6.75 percent, while Lollar promises to cut it to 5 percent. Craig says he would cut it to 4 percent.

While pledging tax relief, Hogan has been less specific in his promises, saying that he would take a more “reasonable” approach than his rivals and that the first priority should be getting spending under control in Annapolis. To that end, Hogan has culled government audits that he says show $1.75 billion in waste, fraud and abuse that O’Malley has failed to address.

While Hogan says he is not taking the primary for granted, he has said from the outset of the race that he is looking forward to the general election.

The Post poll found that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic front-runner, would start a November race against Hogan in a strong position.

Brown leads Hogan 51 percent to 33 percent among all registered voters in a hypothetical matchup, according to the poll. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state more than 2 to 1. Brown and Hogan each have the support of large majorities of their own party members, and Brown leads among independent voters.

Hogan noted that the Democratic contest has involved far more radio and television advertising than the Republican effort and said increased spending during his general-election campaign should tighten the race.

“We’ve spent a few hundred grand,” Hogan said. “They’ve spent millions on television. It’s really not a fair comparison.”

Hogan is the first Republican in 20 years who is participating in Maryland’s public-financing system. His campaign account has also been bolstered by $500,000 in personal loans to his campaign, putting him in a stronger financial position than his rivals.

Hogan’s television ads and campaign literature offer a preview of what a matchup with Brown might look like.

One side of a Hogan campaign mailer, for example, offers his biography and plans. On the flip side, it decries “the O’Malley-Brown record” of “failed policies,” “failed promises” and “failed leadership.”

Seeking a ‘new direction’

GOP stalwarts say they are hopeful that voter fatigue with O’Malley’s eight years in office will help them in November. A similar dynamic played out in 2002, when Ehrlich defeated Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the lieutenant governor under Parris N. Glendening, whose popularity had waned considerably.

As of February, however, O’Malley’s job-approval rating stood at 55 percent, according to a Washington Post poll. The new Post poll showed that most voters, including a majority of registered Democrats, would like to see the state move in a “new direction” — even though many of those Democrats were backing Brown.

State Sen. Joseph M. Getty (R-Carroll) said he sees several similarities between 2014 and 2002, including a likely “lackluster” Democratic nominee in Brown.

“It’s going to come down to pocketbook issues and how people feel about what’s happened during the last eight years,” Getty said. “That puts Brown on the defensive.”

Ehrlich was defeated by O’Malley in 2006 after a single term. He lost a comeback bid against O’Malley in 2010 by more than 14 percentage points.

Some in the Maryland GOP argue that the party could fare better this year, with a fresh face at the top of the ticket. “It’s hard to talk about change when you’re running a candidate statewide for the third time,” Brian Griffiths, chairman of the Maryland Young Republicans, said, referring to Ehrlich.

If the Democrats are worried about the general election, they haven’t let on.

At an event last month where Brown touted support from fellow military veterans, he told the crowd that he considers his June 24 primary against Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery) to be “the bigger objective.”

“We take that hill, and then we’ve got a little bit of a molehill to take in November,” Brown said.