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A Whole New Ball Game

By Russ Smith | Posted 6/28/2006

That sound you heard the evening of June 23 wasn't a clap of thunder but a primal scream from Robert Ehrlich, the incumbent still reeling from the sucker-punch of Doug Duncan announcing his withdrawal from the gubernatorial primary against Martin O'Malley. If any insider, in the media or the Democratic and Republican brain trusts, had anticipated this momentous news, it was one of best-kept secrets in years.

I was checking The Sun's web site late the previous afternoon, just out of habit, and my jaw dropped. Duncan's one-time long-shot campaign had appeared to gain traction, and anyone who wants to see the governor re-elected was relishing the money-draining battle between O'Malley and the Montgomery County executive.

Two days before Duncan's statement that he was dropping out because of diagnosed "clinical depression," The Wall Street Journal's Brendan Miniter, a superb commentator on the midterm elections (every Tuesday on, reported from Annapolis that Ehrlich was in a "strong" position to defy the expected nationwide trend for the Democrats and win the race in November. Miniter's June 20 piece was more optimistic than I felt was warranted. He didn't devote nearly enough attention to the ongoing outrage over the electricity rate increases, correctly putting most of the blame on the Democratic-engineered 1999 rate cap but downplaying that the coming spike comes on Ehrlich's watch. But Miniter was accurate in pointing out that national Democrats' perception of Maryland as an untouchable "blue state," safe for both the governorship and retaining Paul Sarbanes' U.S. Senate seat, is premature.

Miniter interviewed Ehrlich in Annapolis earlier this month and asked him "how he has survived titanic battles with a heavily Democratic state Legislature and hostile press." Ehrlich, apparently in an upbeat mood, told him, "I won't guarantee you that we will win re-election because we are Marylanders and because we are Republicans." Miniter recounted for his national readership the failed lawsuit The Sun waged against Ehrlich, the atrocious attack on Wal-Mart that resulted in compelling the company to devote at least 8 percent of its payroll to health care, the governor's working-class background, and the state's very low unemployment rate (3.4 percent) as part of a winning message to voters this fall.

Until last week I thought Ehrlich had a slight edge in November's election, figuring that O'Malley would do irreparable damage to his candidacy during the primary against Duncan. In fact, as noted in this space recently, I thought Duncan could beat O'Malley and then be outgunned by Ehrlich. Now, who knows what's going to happen.

As every political science professor and politician quoted in the stories about Duncan bowing out to attend to his medical situation said, the governor's race is once again brand new, a totally different "dynamic." And, undeniably, the advantage goes to O'Malley-especially if he can keep his mouth shut this summer and avoid the kind of gaffes that have landed him in trouble before.

The Sun, which has not so subtly supported O'Malley in the primary, ran an editorial June 23 that was notable more for its crocodile tears than sincerity. In what was perhaps a reminder to O'Malley that he ought to think before speaking, the paper said, in part, "Mr. Duncan was just coming into focus. His recent television ads revealed a man of wit and purpose, an upper-classman running against two popular sophomores. . . . Our prediction? [The election is] going to get ugly. And there will be moments when we'll wish a certain steady, self-effacing grown-up was still available for the job."

The Washington Post, whose editorials this spring presaged a Duncan endorsement, was gracious as well in hoping for the 50-year-old's recovery from his apparent illness. Its own June 23 edit did note, however, that Duncan has been the subject recently of several Post news stories that suggested his policies were influenced by campaign contributions, including "some arranged by disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff." So, in the midst of a laudatory get-well-soon message, the Post drops the Abramoff bomb, which has been poison this year in electoral politics.

The O'Malley and Ehrlich campaigns were predictably disingenuous commenting on Duncan's withdrawal. Last Friday, O'Malley told Duncan supporters that he'd "be honored to be their second choice." He continued, "This is a weighty responsibility. [Running mate Anthony Brown] and I now have the responsibility of bringing people together and being the leaders of this party and moving us forward." A boilerplate statement, and though O'Malley says his former opponent is in his prayers, odds are that he'll forget his last name by July 4.

Ehrlich wasn't any better: "Doug is a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. He embodies the personal decency and graciousness Marylanders deserve from their public servants." Talk about laying it on thick.

The Sun is right that the Ehrlich/O'Malley race will grow increasingly ugly. Both will inevitably flood the airwaves with attack ads, and despite the public's purported dislike of such tactics, they usually work. And I doubt there will be much talk about "honor" and "decency" in the months ahead.

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