- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland governor’s race is now a one-on-one duel between an incumbent who says he has kept his promises and broken the Democrats’ monopoly on power and a challenger who is casting himself as a champion of the forgotten middle class.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, says that he has fulfilled his first-term promises, which include turning a $4 billion budget deficit into a $2 billion surplus, and that his re-election would maintain two-party government in a state where Democratic power went unchecked for decades.

“We’re going to take on the [Democratic] monopoly again, and this time we’re going to bring the monopoly down,” Mr. Ehrlich said in a speech last week in which he announced his re-election bid.

Mr. Ehrlich, 49, preaches a centrist mix of small government, personal empowerment and environmental concerns while portraying his opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, as ambitious but unproven.

“We have a record of accomplishment, then we have contrasts: his failed leadership, our successful governorship,” Mr. Ehrlich said at a parade Saturday in Laurel.

Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat, is casting himself as a populist.

“The hard-working families of Maryland deserve leadership… that understands their hopes and dreams as well as their struggles and fears,” he said in a speech last week outside the governor’s mansion.

Mr. O’Malley, 44, portrays the governor as more interested in big business and special interests than in the plight of residents.

Both candidates will have significant bankrolls to get out their messages, primarily on television. Mr. Ehrlich intends to raise as much as $20 million.

Mr. O’Malley, who leads in polls by double digits, will try to keep pace. His message has been one of convincing voters that Maryland is worse off now than it was four years ago, when Mr. Ehrlich became the first Republican elected as Maryland’s governor since 1966.

Mr. O’Malley cites rising costs for college, electricity and health care as evidence that Maryland is “slipping backwards.”

Mr. O’Malley’s biggest criticism of Mr. Ehrlich is that he is a “special-interests governor … on the side of big energy interests and not on the side of consumers.”

The accusation followed the announcement this spring by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. that it would increase its electricity rates by as much as 72 percent.

The Democrat-controlled legislature could not reach an agreement during its regular session on how to help customers, so Mr. Ehrlich worked out a deal with the utility company.

Mr. O’Malley then successfully sued to have the Ehrlich plan rejected and said the utility-regulating Public Service Commission had failed to act in the best interest of the customers.

The legislature then returned to a special session and passed laws to reduce the increase and fired the commission members.

Mr. Ehrlich says his deal was better than the one reached by the legislature.

“It’s not even close,” he said. “The best deal was left on the table, the best deal by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Much of Mr. Ehrlich’s criticism of Mr. O’Malley focuses on Baltimore’s failing public schools. A state takeover of 11 that failed to meet standards under the No Child Left Behind law was prevented this year by the legislature, at the urging of Mr. O’Malley and Baltimore officials.

“Martin O’Malley did not care about those kids,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Politics beat those kids. It’s disgraceful.”

Test scores remain low in Baltimore schools. A report in June showed that three Thurgood Marshall Middle School students in an eighth-grade class of 238 were proficient in math.

Mr. O’Malley said Mr. Ehrlich “has cast aspersions on the people of Baltimore” since he came into office.

Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O’Malley also will clash over the cost of college.

Mr. O’Malley criticizes the governor for cuts in higher-education funding in his first three years in office, which coincided with a 40 percent increase in tuition.

Mr. Ehrlich gave state universities $172 million in new funds this year.

Geographically, the election will hinge in large part on Baltimore County, where Mr. Ehrlich won convincingly in 2002 over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Observers say that Mr. O’Malley is a stronger candidate than Mrs. Townsend was and that he holds greater appeal for the moderate Democrat voting bloc, which helped Mr. Ehrlich win the election four years ago.

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