ROCKVILLE, Md. — Gov. Martin O'Malley is expanding his lead in a nasty rematch of his 2006 race against Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, providing a rare bright spot for Democrats bracing for big losses in both congressional and governors' races this year.
O'Malley has several things going for him.
Ehrlich has had trouble capitalizing on anti-incumbent sentiment because he was governor just before O'Malley. Unlike some other states where GOP candidates are doing well, the tea party doesn't have much of a presence in Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. And with lots of federal, military and health care jobs, Maryland has been insulated from some of the economic woes that have plagued other states.
A poll released Monday by The Washington Post found 54 percent of likely voters support O'Malley, while 40 percent back Ehrlich. So far, state records show, Democratic voters have cast 51,113 absentee and early voting ballots, compared with 21,970 for Republicans and 7,086 others. The two have demonstrated their distaste for one another in a series of sniping debates that have, along with negative advertising, alienated voters from both parties.
"I think this has been overall, not just in Maryland, the most negative kind of campaigning I have ever experienced and I hate it," said Jane Spencer, who voted for O'Malley on Friday in Montgomery County. "If anything, it makes me sort of disgusted at all of the candidates and almost all of them equally."
But O'Malley's efforts to highlight his commitment to education spending, including a freeze on public college tuition during his four-year term, seem to be resonating with voters.
"The current governor really did much better than the previous one because of the education part," said Demeke Seyoum, who has two children in college, after voting early Friday for O'Malley in Montgomery.
Ehrlich has said he would not fund the Geographic Cost of Education Index, a budget formula O'Malley supports that sends extra money to school districts in areas with higher education costs.
Ehrlich has focused on the economy, blasting $1.4 billion in tax increases backed by O'Malley in 2007 and contending they have stunted business growth in the state and crippled its ability to attract business to spur the economy. Ehrlich has pledged not to raise taxes.
Jerry Joseph, 73, a voter from Potomac in Montgomery County, said O'Malley hasn't helped the state's business climate.
"The only way we're going to get out of this economic problem is create jobs, and O'Malley has proven that he can't do it," Joseph said after voting for Ehrlich.
O'Malley has called in the support of President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and labor unions to get out the Democratic vote and rally independent voters, who have been a focus of both campaigns in Montgomery County. Ehrlich has seen advertising support from the Republican Governors Association and brought former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Montgomery to endorse him.
O'Malley, who has had more money than Ehrlich for advertising, said his negative ads were necessary.
"I have an obligation to make sure that the public understands — notwithstanding the former governor's fantasy world that he never raised taxes because he didn't raise fees, even though he raised property taxes, even though he raised college tuition by 40 percent, even though he raised tolls and the like — I have an obligation to point that out," O'Malley said in a debate on WJZ-TV in Baltimore.
O'Malley's campaign has released two radio ads during the campaign using the "fantasy land" theme that Ehrlich has misrepresented his record as governor.
"Record spending and billions in taxes isn't a fantasy Bob," a voice in the ad says. "It's a record Maryland shouldn't forget."
Ehrlich, whose campaign ads have described tax increases by O'Malley as "the largest tax increase in Maryland history," contends the governor's negative ads are a sign O'Malley knows he's in trouble.
"He can't market what he's done because he's done nothing," Ehrlich said Sunday at a rally with Giuliani.
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