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Political Animal

Showtime

By Brian Morton | Posted 6/28/2006

To the battlements! Scramble the fighters! Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war! It's now the real campaign season.

In this corner, with television-pretty looks, a sharp left, and no aversion to combat is Mayor Martin O'Malley. And over in this corner, with a Princeton degree, Gilman pedigree, four years of service in the Maryland statehouse, and hair that can cut glass is Gov. Robert "Bobby Smooth" Ehrlich!

Yes, folks, enjoy the excitement, because from now until November this is about all you'll have to look forward to. This week the governor will officially announce he's running again and then, right afterward, name his running mate, since he's got to have that person on the ticket by July 3. And then the gloves come off for real.

No matter what else you may hear about this race, it really is about a few simple things: whether, after seven years as Baltimore's mayor, O'Malley can run the state, or do the voters want four more years of a governor who will battle the legislature tooth and nail at every opportunity, only (in most cases) to lose and then claim victory anyway (think of stem cell research, for instance).

Residents of Baltimore City: Prepare to be derided at nearly every turn. Ehrlich has made no secret of the fact that he doesn't think he's going to get much in the way of votes from this town, and the way you'll hear it, thanks to some $20 million worth of TV advertising between now and the fall, you live in Baghdad. Schools don't function, crime is off the charts-failure, failure, failure. It'll be like the first Sauerbrey-Glendening battle, only without the niceness.

Already Ehrlich has quite the hole to climb out of. Polling on the race consistently shows the Democratic ticket with as much as a 14-point lead, and never anything smaller than a nine-point lead. Even withdrawn candidate Doug Duncan led Ehrlich in polling. This is not a case like Washington, D.C., where divided government might serve as a check on overreach-Ehrlich, despite being the beneficiary of a "strong governor" system, is leading where voters clearly do not want to go. Be it medical malpractice, stem cell research, or slot machines, Ehrlich has been on the wrong side.

For the record, however, despite O'Malley not being opposed to slots, this issue is for all intents and purposes dead for quite a while. With all the other issues on the table, it's unlikely that the one issue on which Ehrlich and O'Malley putatively agree will come up in the fall election campaign.

While Duncan's premature withdrawal has changed and intensified the main event, the fallout will have a substantial effect on the rest of the races this year. The presence of a strong Democratic primary battle at the top of the ticket would likely have brought a lot more voters into the booths in September. Without that catalyst, the equation shifts, most notably in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination.

The race has primarily been a battle between U.S. Rep Ben Cardin and former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. This contest will be primarily decided by turnout. With far less cash on hand, Mfume's statistically even standing against Cardin can perhaps be bolstered by a get-out-the-vote rally in the heavily African-American sections of the state; Cardin has to wonder how much the other candidates in the race will bleed off support. Right now you can bet the number crunchers in the field divisions of each of the two Senate front-runners are poring over voting maps looking to see how their teams can be deployed on primary election day to maximize turnout in their strongholds. This is the gritty, dirt-ugly part of campaigning (along with fundraising) that most people never see, but it is also where most serious campaigns are won.

If historically laconic black voters in Prince George's County and the city don't get excited enough in September, the race will go to Cardin in a walk. If enough of those voters get excited for Mfume, plus enough liberal Montgomery County voters who feel it's about time Maryland joins Illinois with a black U.S. senator, then Mfume will go on to meet Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the fall, which will be a bout of mammoth proportions and a prospective race that the national Republican Party has been salivating over since the beginning of the year.

Steele has been doing absolutely nothing but raising money since declaring his interest in the seat-with help from any warm body with name recognition the national GOP can send in. No matter how toxic their reputation-Dick Cheney and his low-teens approval ratings came in to raise dough for Steele-the lieutenant gov has shown he'll take their money. If anything, after Steele's stem cell gaffe in front of Jewish voters, and his smart-ass "I don't play golf" quip after the flap over a country club's lack of black members, Steele knows the fall will be all about painting his opponent negatively, because he can't run on issues.

The real races are here! Bring it on-it's party time!

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