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."
Mr. Romney endorsed Mr. Ehrlich and told the room that electing Mr. Ehrlich was the "only way this state is going to create jobs again."
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.
Since February, Mr. Ehrlich has steadily closed the gap between himself and Mr. O'Malley, making up a six-percentage-point deficit in the polls.
On the campaign circuit, Mr. Ehrlich has hammered the governor as a free-spending, anti-business Democrat - citing in particular the recent decision of California defense giant Northrop Grumman to relocate its corporate headquarters to Virginia instead of Maryland.
"We have earned, unfortunately, a 'hostile-to-business' reputation," he told a group of economic leaders in Ocean City on Monday. "The view in Annapolis is, we can be as anti-business as we want to be. And if you're a small business? 'Screw you, you can go to Virginia.'
"That's the attitude I face every day," said the former governor, according to one local report.
In his advertisements and on the stump, Mr. O'Malley relentlessly questions his opponent's claims of fiscal responsibility.
The governor, who was also in Ocean City on Monday, said at a firefighters convention, "There are some who run for public office to take Maryland back. We're running for re-election to move Maryland forward."
In addition to firing back at Mr. Ehrlich, the governor has made his administration's four-year moratorium on tuition increases at state schools a focal point of his re-election pitch.
Mr. Ehrlich has said the freeze on tuition increases is hurting growing community colleges.
Mr. O'Malley has encouraging statistics on crime in the state (down during his tenure) and public schools (ranked among the nation's best on his watch) to use in his campaign.
But on economic issues - where Mr. Ehrlich is hitting his successor on the campaign trail - the governor seems to be fighting an ongoing stream of bad news: from the Northrop Grumman loss to the closing of the Solo Cup plant in Owings Mills (540 jobs lost) to the high-profile closing of the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor (140 jobs).
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