People are seen during a campaign event for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown at the Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland on Oct. 30 in College Park. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The race for Maryland governor was not supposed to be this close.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown crushed his Democratic primary competitors and told supporters that the general election would be “a little bit of a molehill” in comparison. In a state with more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans, a poll in the spring showed Brown 18 points ahead among registered voters in a theoretical matchup with Larry Hogan, the eventual Republican nominee.

But Brown has struggled to combat Hogan’s relentless criticism of tax increases enacted by his boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley. While Hogan, an Anne Arundel County businessman, promises to boost Maryland’s anemic economy and bring new jobs to the state, Brown has been slow to offer a compelling vision of what he would do differently from O’Malley, whose approval rating has plummeted.

Hogan’s folksy manner and we-can-do-better message has resonated with some Democrats and independents, especially white men, and is stirring excitement among Republicans. As the polls grew tighter this fall, showing Brown with only a single-digit lead over Hogan, national groups pumped money into the race, and top political figures lent their support. The Cook Political Report on Friday declared the race a “toss up,” with Brown retaining a slight advantage, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Web site still shows Brown as the strong favorite.

If he wins, Brown will be Maryland’s first African American governor and only the third elected in the nation. His campaign is in the final days of a massive and expensive outreach operation, making a special effort to mobilize African American voters, a key Democratic voting bloc.

A look at the two candidates and their views on some of the most pressing issues in the 2014 Maryland governors race.

A Washington Post-Universoty of Maryland poll last month showed Brown had strong support in the black community, but he fell short compared with other Democrats in recent elections, including O’Malley in 2006 and President Obama. Many black voters talk worriedly about jobs and how their children will make ends meet. And with Obama twice elected, some say choosing a black governor seems somehow less urgent.

Still, Brown’s likelihood of winning, especially by a convincing margin, depends in large part on how many black voters go to the polls, said Thomas F. Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

“It’s about as vital,” Schaller said, “as blood is to the circulatory system.”

Outreach and inroads

In 2002, the only African American candidate for a statewide office in Maryland was a Republican — a fact that angered many black lawmakers, including Brown, at the time a state delegate from Prince George’s County.

“I think the Democratic Party is failing African Americans here,” he said.

Turnout for black voters fell that year, and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — whose running mate, Michael Steele, is African American — became Maryland’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years.

Maryland’s gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan, took part in an Oct. 18. debate at Maryland Public Television’s studios in Owings Mills. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

It was a sobering moment for Maryland’s Democratic power brokers. Four years later, O’Malley picked Brown as his running mate.

The son of a Jamaican father and a Swiss mother, Brown told an interviewer after the 2006 election that “I wake up every morning and I look in the mirror, and I see an African American man whose life has been shaped in large part by race.”

But while he says both he and his parents encountered racism on Long Island, where he grew up, he declines to discuss it, saying those experiences are nothing special. He rarely brings up race on the campaign trail, if at all.

Still, Brown can’t escape the historic nature of this race in Maryland, which has a greater percentage of African American residents than any state outside the Deep South.

The Maryland Democratic Party blanketed black neighborhoods last month with hundreds of thousands of campaign pamphlets that recall some of the nation’s most painful civil rights battles and tell voters: “It’s our turn to take an important step in the journey.”

Each Sunday, Brown visits predominantly black churches. At Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington one week, the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. listed things Brown has done for the community and reminded his congregation of the importance of voting.

“Our foremothers and fore­fathers died for that right,” Browning said. “Don’t spit on their graves.”

After the service, Brown stood at an exit and told churchgoer after churchgoer: “I need you.”

Hogan, too, is competing for African Americans votes, much more so than previous GOP nominees.

“Our ticket is pretty diverse,” Hogan said. “My running mate and his family are black. My wife and my three daughters are Asian. . . . People look at us and say, ‘This doesn’t look like a typical Republican campaign.’ ”

Hogan grew up in Prince George’s, where his father — a former congressman — served as county executive. He has made frequent campaign stops there, addressing a mostly black audience at Bowie State University and greeting commuters at the Branch Avenue Metro station.

Over Labor Day weekend, Hogan hosted a picnic in Baltimore. After eating hot dogs and playing cornhole, he walked past check-cashing places and boarded-up rowhouses and stopped to talk with workers at small businesses and residents sitting on front porches.

“The response we got was: ‘No one ever comes to visit us. We’ve never seen any politician here,’ ” Hogan said. “What I heard over and over from them was jobs and taxes. . . . Our same message that resonates in the suburbs and in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore was reaching these folks in the toughest part of inner-city Baltimore.”

Hogan has a television ad featuring K. Kandie Leach, an African American who says that until now, she has never voted for a Republican.

“Families are struggling right now, and I don’t feel that Brown can make the change,” Leach says. “What makes things crazy is when you keep voting in the same party and there is no change. Actually, they call it insanity.”

Sealing the deal

Hogan is at a major disadvantage compared with Brown in terms of money and party organization. He chose to participate in the state’s public financing system, which limited how much his campaign could spend. He has benefited, though, from an influx of spending by the Republican Governors Association and the Maryland Republican Party, and multiple visits by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is coming back to the state to rally voters Sunday night.

Brown has his own VIP list of all-star campaigners, starting with Obama, who came to Upper Marlboro two weeks ago. Several thousand people, nearly all of them African American, waited for hours to see the president. Most seemed much less enthusiastic about hearing from Brown.

Near the bottom of some bleachers sat Helene Johnson, 52, who is contemplating not voting this year. She is not happy about the casino that will open soon at National Harbor, a result of legislation passed under O’Malley’s watch. And, she said, she is not sure what Brown stands for.

“What exactly is his path?” said Johnson, an adjunct professor who lives in Fort Washington. “I just haven’t heard what he’s really behind.”

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Democrat from Baltimore and an African American who supports Brown, said he is surprised that Brown’s candidacy has not stirred more excitement.

“I thought it would take off at some point, and people would realize this is an important moment in Maryland history — but that hasn’t really happened,” Anderson said. “I don’t think the Brown campaign gave us enough of Brown before they went negative. A lot of us wanted to see more about why we should go out and vote, and less about why the other guy is not a good choice.”

Stella M. Rouse, a politics professor at the University of Maryland, said race was a much bigger factor in the 2006 election of Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts, the only black governor now in office.

“The dynamics have changed a good bit,” Rouse said, noting that Patrick (D) began his tenure before Obama’s election. “We’re having an election in Maryland without race being this huge deal.”

At the Obama rally, retired school bus driver Daphne Bowie, 72, said she identifies with Brown. “It’s not color but a mixture of things. I think it’s an understanding of the struggle,” said Bowie, who was once the only woman of color on her bus lot.

When Bowie graduated from high school, she found a job. Her children did the same. But she said today’s graduates don’t fit in the labor market. “Somewhere, the ball was dropped,” she said. “We need someone who will get black people together and make them feel as though they are being listened to.”

On Thursday, Brown attended another rally in Prince George’s, this time with former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the front of the line were two African American sisters from Randallstown.

“We had an African American president, and now Maryland’s going to have a chance to have an African American governor,” said Angela Manning, 51.

Her older sister, Sandra Manning, 55, added: “We will be able to look back and say that we were part of this.”

Down to the wire

Brown has built a complex and well-funded network of field staffers and volunteers tasked with finding voters and getting them to the polls. On Election Day alone, the campaign will have people scheduled for a total of 4,000 shifts of knocking on doors, making phone calls and ensuring that Democrats vote, said campaign manager Justin Schall.

The campaign is especially targeting “drop-off voters” — those who always vote for president but skip off-year elections.

Asked about the Cook rating on Saturday after a rally in Waldorf, Brown said he has felt an “increasing sense of enthusiasm around the fundamental message and the choice this election presents.”

“I’m confident,” he said. “I’m not complacent.”

With less money to spend, Republican turnout operations in Maryland have traditionally been less sophisticated. Hogan spokesman Adam Dubitsky said the campaign has “an army of volunteers” working phone banks through the campaign’s regional offices. But he said turnout efforts also include Hogan and running mate Boyd Rutherford meeting voters face to face, “encouraging our base and reaching out to, and doing a lot of listening in, communities that have been overlooked by Republicans and completely taken for granted by Democrats.”

On Saturday, Brown’s campaign dispatched 1,500 volunteers and staffers to make calls and leave fliers on the doors of registered Democrats who at least occasionally vote. O’Malley rallied some of them as they picked up materials and fueled up on doughnuts at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville. He also gave his take on the latest polls and projections.

“My gut tells me it’s likely 2 or 3,” O’Malley said of the number of percentage points by which he thinks Brown will win. “Sometimes your gut becomes informed by being through these a few times.”

Later, as O’Malley stirred cream into a cup of coffee, he asked Dels. Craig J. Zucker and Eric G. Luedtke, Democrats who represent the area, what they were hearing on the ground.

“I’m a little nervous,” the governor said.

Scott Clement, Hamil R. Harris and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.