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O’Malley wins this round of ‘Survivor’

A rarity among Democrats in America today, Gov. Martin O’Malley basks in the glow of victory.

While Democrats fell by the bloody score, he won in a breeze.

While many Democrats tried to hide from the historic accomplishments of Barack Obama, O’Malley ran on his record and stood proudly with the president …

He refused to rule out tax increases, daring those who put “Owe-Malley” bumper stickers on their cars.

In some ways, his record on taxes and the president’s illustrate the perversity of this election. Obama granted most middle-class Americans a tax cut. O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly raised the sales tax.

While 37 percent of Tuesday’s voters told exit pollsters that Obama was their target, they took out their anger on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 60 or so members of the House. A half-dozen senators lost.

O’Malley won his race by 14 percentage points. He more than doubled his 2006 margin of victory.

His opponent, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., may have waited months too long to enter the race, assuming that Marylanders would grant him, a former governor, as much time as he needed to decide. He seemed to assume a residuum of good feeling.

A reintroduction

O’Malley seemed to relish the opportunity to reintroduce himself. He had arrived in the governor’s mansion as the mayor of Baltimore and, yet, a callow youth, the leader of an Irish band, a brash and sometimes profane commentator on the world around him.

The 2010 version of Martin O’Malley seemed, by contrast, disciplined, focused and prepared. In their first and critically important debate, O’Malley methodically dismembered Ehrlich’s positions, winning decisively on points.

Bob Ehrlich, knowing Maryland’s political history, entered a race he had seemed to rule out after his 2006 defeat. Republicans, he said then, were hopelessly outnumbered. He ran again in 2010, he said, because his wife convinced him he had more to give.

Just what that was never seemed clear. O’Malley’s record in hard times was hard to fault, and Ehrlich never seemed to convince voters that he could have done better. Maryland public schools were the best in the nation by some measures. Unemployment was lower than in surrounding states.

O’Malley had raised taxes, but he had cut the budget by billions. Forced into it by the state’s balanced-budget requirement, he had fortified himself against tea party demands for small government.

Ehrlich seemed reluctant to reach out for the tea party’s help — and its enthusiasm — until very late in the race. Sarah Palin had come in to endorse his primary opponent, Brian Murphy. Her sometimes dramatic presence hardly seemed to register in Maryland.

O’Malley, meanwhile, put on another tour de force of getting out the vote. Early voting gave the O’Malley team six extra days to find the faithful and get them to the polls. With his brother, Peter, and Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh in charge, the O’Malley team was once again reinventing the so-called ground game.

The Great Mentioner

All of which set O’Malley up for consideration from The Great Mentioner, that anonymous sage who scans the horizon for those worthies who might be on their way to assignments on the national stage if not presidential tickets.

If he succeeds in taking his game to the next level, as they say in sports, O’Malley may have to reinvent himself yet again.

“He’s smart. He has ambition. His command of policy is impressive. And he has shown an ability to implement,” says University of Baltimore political scientist Roy Myers. He’s shown an ability to change course on such things as corrections, closing a “hellhole” prison even as he continues as a tough-on-crime executive.

The chink, Myers says, is a tendency to be over-scripted — a defense perhaps against that earlier tendency to let fly.

For the moment, he faces daunting budgetary challenges — too many commitments, too little revenue. He’s probably made promises to many, including state employee unions.

Without really saying how he would do it, O’Malley has said he will keep the financial house in order without sacrificing core values.

The Great Mentioner will be watching.

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.