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Commentary: Will better be good enough?

It’s all about the economy — and money: money for campaign commercials, money for staff and money for getting out the vote …

We’re talking about political campaigns in general and this year’s race for governor in particular.

At last count, Gov. Martin O’Malley had an enormous money lead over his challenger, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former governor.

O’Malley had more than $5 million, Ehrlich, less than $150,000

Normally, one would say “Game over.”

Not this year. There may be forces abroad that will neutralize the purely financial: anti-incumbency fever, tea party anger and unemployment. Maybe, but don’t bet against money.

Another poll landed this week, suggesting once again that the year’s rematch between O’Malley and Ehrlich will be a close one. Some lightly regarded surveys have been saying the same thing, tending to affirm the belief that this is a tough year for incumbents.

“The race is being driven almost entirely by the economy,” says Laslo Boyd of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. “If the economy were not so bad, the race would not be close.”

Pockets of discontent

Boyd says it’s almost remarkable that O’Malley’s standing is not worse. The governor seems to be holding his own against the — for him —  malevolent “out there” factor.

“The question is whether he can hold his position,” Boyd says. If you’re Ehrlich, he said, you have to find a way to “move the numbers”  sharply in his direction. So far, there’s been little if any change.

The Washington Post reports that Ehrlich believes he can aggregate pockets of discontent, turning them into enough votes to prevail in a close contest.

Boyd tends to doubt that strategy can succeed.

“Our poll shows it’s not about the barbs or instantaneous reactions to events,” he says. It’s the ongoing, underlying concern about the economy.

Of those who say that is the issue, 45 percent favor O’Malley, 42 percent favor Ehrlich. As expected, among Marylanders who say taxes are the most important issue, 73 percent want a second Ehrlich term. But only 10 percent of the sample said taxes were the most important issue.

Here one sees the importance of money in campaigns.

O’Malley, with his enormous financial advantage, offers himself as the candidate most concerned with the circumstances of Maryland families. His television ads might be distilled to a single word: jobs. And he’s been able to put that word on TV screens over and over and over — and early.

Early is important. A political action committee called EMILY’S List heralded the importance of money for women trying to break through in politics 25 years ago. The acronym stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast — it helps you raise more money, raise name recognition and get your message in front of people.

It also helps you define your opponent at a time when he doesn’t have the resources to counter what you’re saying. In this case, O’Malley’s message is that Ehrlich is a warmed-over Republican.

What’s the right direction?

O’Malley is also asking people to examine the record. He presents himself as a careful steward of the budget and a “tough choices” administrator.

“The question is whether the message — that Maryland is better off than some other states — will resonate with voters who are in trouble,” Boyd said.

The Gonzalez poll asked this question:

“Maryland is facing a huge budget deficit this year. Some argue that the deficit is the result of the problems in the overall economy that have led to declining tax revenues. Others argue that the deficit is the result of too much spending by government. Which argument more accurately reflects your views?”

Forty-four percent of the survey respondents blamed the deficit on spending, while 38 percent said declining tax revenue was to blame. By party, 71 percent of Republicans cited spending, while 57 percent of Democrats thought declining tax revenues led to the deficit.

O’Malley’s assertion that Maryland under his administration is “moving in the right direction” gets some support by Marylanders who participated in this survey. Forty-two percent think economic conditions will be better next year, while 36 percent said “about the same” and 23 percent said “worse.”

The polls, meanwhile, show a tight race. If that finding sends more money to the Ehrlich campaign, the race could be even tighter.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.