Maryland's governor's race is coming down to a question of just how liberal the state's Democratic Party wants to go.
With less than four weeks to go until the Democratic primary, which amounts to a ticket to the governor's mansion in the deep blue state, the liberal establishment's candidate — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — suddenly looks vulnerable against a hard-charging but only slightly less liberal rival.
Mr. Brown should have the race sewn up, with endorsements from former President Bill Clinton, outgoing Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Maryland General Assembly leadership and seven of the nine Democrats in the state's congressional delegation. And his $4.5 million campaign bank account is about $1 million larger than that of State Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, his chief competitor.
Yet Mr. Brown, who leads in every poll, isn't a sure bet in the June 24 primary election.
A huge segment of Maryland voters — 54 percent in a recent poll — haven't made up their minds about who to vote for or just don't care.
"It appears that his support it soft. You don't find, outside of the African-American community, voters who are excited about Anthony Brown," said Towson University professor Richard E. Vatz, who specializes in political rhetoric and analyzing Maryland political campaigns.
Mr. Brown is running as the continuation of Mr. O'Malley's two-term tenure, and would be Maryland's first black governor. He is drawing overwhelming support among black voters, who make up more than 20 percent of the state's registered Democrats.
But he also played a lead roll in the state's disastrous Obamacare website, opening himself up to attacks from Mr. Gansler. That escalated last week when Mr. Brown skipped a debate hosted by WBFF-TV Fox 45 in Baltimore, leaving the stage to Mr. Gansler and Montgomery Delegate Heather R. Mizeur, the third Democrat in the race.
"If [Mr. Brown] had spent more time actually running the Affordable Care Act rollout instead of raising money from special interests, we wouldn't be in this position," Mr. Gansler said at the debate, standing beside an empty podium with Mr. Brown's name on it.
The state's Obamacare website was one of the worst in the country. Maryland spent about $125 million to build an online health care exchange that didn't work and another $40 million to switch to a website developed by Connecticut.
Mr. Brown has largely shrugged off his responsibility for the Obamacare fiasco, and his campaign has insisted he couldn't attend the debate due to a commitment to host a community meeting.
The location of the community meeting, however, was not finalized until a few days before the debate, according to the Baltimore Sun.
The debate no-show provided an opening for fresh attacks.
The Gansler campaign aired a new TV ad Thursday titled "Trust" that featured video footage of the debate with Mr. Brown's nameplate on empty lectern between Mr. Gansler and Ms. Mizeur. Bold print across the screen read: "If Anthony Brown won't even show up in Baltimore to debate, how can we trust him to stand up for us as governor?"
Voters will have a hard time differentiating the three Democrats based on their campaign platforms, which vary only by the degree of the liberal policies they embrace.
Mr. Brown promises to be just as liberal as Mr. O'Malley, who is eyeing a presidential run. Mr. Gansler would be slightly less liberal and Ms. Mizeur would be the most progressive.
All three want to provide universal pre-kindergarten, though Ms. Mizeur would pay for it by legalizing and taxing marijuana.
"Anybody who was going to bet on this race would be a fool not to bet on Brown. But I've been around these long enough to know when they are a lock and it does not strike me as a lock," Mr. Vatz said. "It strikes me as his to lose. And one way to lose it is to look like you are afraid to debate and appear that you are afraid to defend your record."
Anne Arundel County businessman Larry Hogan remains the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, with Harford County Executive David R. Craig a distant second.
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