On paper, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley should be cruising to re-election this fall, with a relatively strong state economy, a rising profile in the Democratic Party and a Republican opponent he soundly defeated four years ago.
So why, in a blue state on President Obama’s northern flank, does the Democratic incumbent suddenly find himself locked in a dead heat in his rematch with his GOP rival, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.?
With both men ramping up their campaign appearances across the state, Rasmussen Reports released an eye-opening poll Thursday that showed Mr. Ehrlich, who has been steadily eating into Mr. O'Malley’s edge in the polls, pulling even with the governor, 45 percent to 45 percent.
The CQ Politics survey still rates the race as “leans Democratic,” but the Rasmussen poll indicates that Mr. Ehrlich may be riding the same wave of voter discontent that has fueled surprising statewide wins in the past year in Democratic strongholds such as Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Like voters nationwide, Marylanders are worried about runaway government spending. Even in the overwhelmingly Democratic state, 53 percent of voters say they back a repeal of President Obama’s health care bill, according to the same Rasmussen survey.
Although that frustration has led to the rise of outsider or “tea party” candidates in Kentucky, Nevada and other states, Mr. Ehrlich is no outsider candidate.
A former state delegate and congressman from the Baltimore suburbs, Mr. Ehrlich won in 2002 with Michael S. Steele, now the head of the Republican National Committee, as his lieutenant governor.
On Thursday, Mr. Steele joined 2008 presidential candidate, and presumed 2012 contender, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, at a crowded Republican fundraiser in Linthicum, where recapturing the governor’s mansion in Annapolis was a big theme of the evening.
“My friends, don’t screw this up. … We’ve got work to do,” Mr. Steele told a crowd of about 700 at the BWI Airport Marriott, where he introduced Mr. Ehrlich as “the once and future governor.”
When a Baltimore television crew caught up with both men at a baseball game earlier, Mr. Romney said, “We have a lot of mutual friends and share mutual supporters, and we both governed pretty difficult states and faced fairly hostile legislatures, so we have a lot in common.”
But if Mr. Ehrlich is clearly not one of this year’s crop of anti-establishment Republicans, the former football player is still better suited to tap into the anti-Washington energy fueling campaigns across the country than his rival, who was mayor of Baltimore when he was elected governor.
After losing handily to Mr. O'Malley in 2006, 53 percent to 46 percent, Mr. Ehrlich burnished his brand of Republican populism with a popular call-in talk show on a Baltimore radio station, joking and arguing agreeably with callers, vigorously defending his record and offering commentary on his successor.
Waiting on the sidelines as a media commentator has helped politicians like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee maintain high post-campaign profiles - and it seems to have worked for Mr. Ehrlich, too.