- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has cut the lead of Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley among likely voters in the gubernatorial election in November, a new poll shows.

The poll was conducted for the Baltimore Sun and shows that 46 percent of likely voters support Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, compared with 38 percent supporting Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, and 16 percent remaining undecided. The last survey conducted for the newspaper was released in November and showed Mr. O’Malley ahead of Mr. Ehrlich by 15 percentage points.

Mr. Ehrlich’s approval rating remains solid, even as President Bush’s rating hovers at an all-time low, the poll showed. Yet more voters said they trusted Democrats when asked which party could better solve the state’s problems.

The contradictions set up what is expected to be a tough political fight.

The poll of 1,200 likely voters was conducted from July 6 to 10 by Potomac Inc., an independent Bethesda-based polling company. It had a margin of sampling error of 2.8 percentage points.

Mr. Ehrlich’s approval rating increased since the poll in November, from 50 percent to 55 percent. Thirty-six percent said in the new poll that they disapprove of how Mr. Ehrlich is doing his job and 10 percent were unsure.

Mr. O’Malley drew much of his support from the state’s most populous jurisdictions — Baltimore city and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The liberal strongholds have carried Democrats to victory in the past.

Mr. Ehrlich holds comfortable margins in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties, Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Baltimore County and Howard County are emerging as battlegrounds.

“We’re seeing this divide again — call it Maryland’s political divide,” said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. “This election is up for grabs.”

Baltimore County, from which Mr. Ehrlich hails, was the key to his 2002 victory over Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat. This year’s race in the county is shaping up to be tougher, with Mr. Ehrlich holding a four-percentage-point lead. Howard County is essentially split, 45 percent for Mr. Ehrlich to 42 percent for Mr. O’Malley.

The poll’s margin of sampling error increases for smaller subgroups, such as counties.

Both candidates enjoyed loyal support from their respective parties, indicating they need to court voters with loose ideological ties.

The poll shows that 47 percent of voters who describe themselves as “moderate” back Mr. O’Malley, while 34 percent favor Mr. Ehrlich.

Theresa Bouma, 40, of Beltsville, an independent, voted for Mr. Ehrlich in 2002 but said she probably will back Mr. O’Malley this year. She said Mr. Ehrlich has not invested in the state’s public schools, especially those in working-class communities.

“I wonder if Mayor O’Malley might have a better sense of quality and fairness across the board,” said Mrs. Bouma, a psychotherapist whose husband is a math teacher.

Though Baltimore city schools typically score the lowest on state tests, voters in the poll said Mr. O’Malley was more likely to improve education as governor.

Vernon Chilcote, a Republican from Manchester, said he does not trust Mr. O’Malley with schools.

“He lacks all credibility on education,” said Mr. Chilcote, 59.

Mr. O’Malley has been consolidating support among Democrats since his primary opponent, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, dropped out of the race.

Mr. Ehrlich recently named as his running mate Kristen Cox, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Disabilities who also is blind and a mother of two. The move is seen as an attempt to win support among a wider stretch of voters, especially women.

Mr. Haller said the poll was conducted too soon after the selection of Mrs. Cox to gauge whether the governor received a bounce with women from the pick. However, Mr. O’Malley’s lead among female voters has decreased to 11 percentage points, from 21 points in November.

Mr. Haller said the campaigns will have many issues to emphasize as they try to sway the unaffiliated and undecided voters who will decide the election.

“The one thing that is clear to me is that you’ve obviously got two titans,” he said. “You’ve got a reasonably popular Republican incumbent, and you’ve got a high-profile mayor. And the race has tightened.”

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