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Can Ehrlich Keep the Maryland Governor's Mansion Red?

Before 2002, Maryland hadn't elected a Republican Governor since Spiro Agnew in 1966. In the fours years since beating the hapless Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in that race, Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich has been battling it out with a Democratically controlled state legislature in one of the bluest states in America. Maryland was John Kerry's 5th best state in 2004 and Al Gore's 4th best in 2000.

A newly released poll by Gonzales Research indicates Mr. Ehrlich is going to be in a dog fight to win a second term. His likely Democratic opponent will be Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley or Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. Mr. O'Malley leads Mr. Duncan by nine points (44% - 35%) among Democratic voters. The primary is September 12.

Given Mr. Ehrlich's power base in the Baltimore suburbs, the Governor would much prefer a match-up against the D.C.-associated Mr. Duncan. However, barring a major surprise, Mr. O'Malley looks to be the likely nominee.

The recent poll is a mixed bag for Mr. Ehrlich: the good news is that even with President Bush's job approval at an all time low in the state at (29%), Mr. Ehrlich remains relatively popular with a 50% job approval. The bad news, however, is that because Democrats have such a huge registration advantage over Republicans in Maryland (55% to 30%), even with a 50% job approval Mr. Ehrlich trails Mr. O'Malley by 5 points (46%-41%) and Mr. Duncan by 2 pts (44%-42%).

One factor working in Mr. Ehrlich's favor is Baltimore Gas & Electric's upcoming rate hikes which have the potential to become a significant political issue as 75% of voters described themselves as "very concerned" about the impending increase. By nearly a 3-1 margin, voters blame the Democratic General Assembly 34% versus only 12% who blame the Republican Governor.

Ehrlich understands that as the first Republican Governor in the last 35 years, in a Democratic state and facing a very hostile media in the form of the Baltimore Sun his administration has to find creative ways to get their message out to the voting public. Governor Ehrlich has been very aggressive about taking advantage of local talk radio and traveling the state which should help to cut into the registration and media advantages for Democratic nominee.

Mayor O'Malley is a very charismatic candidate and his home base in Baltimore will strike at Mr. Ehrlich's strength in the Baltimore suburbs and will make this an extremely close race. If Mr. Ehrlich can win a second-term, however, it may lead to the national stage: as a twice-elected, conservative Governor, of a solidly blue-state he suddenly will become a very attractive candidate for the Republican VP slot in 2008.