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Heather Mizeur
Heather Mizeur stands in front of her campaign office in Silver Spring, Md. on May 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Does Mizeur have a real shot?

Can Heather Mizeur pull off a Harry Hughes?

In 1978, Hughes rocketed out of the single digits in pre-election polling to bring down the seemingly prohibitive front-runner, Blair Lee III.

I don’t think it can happen 2014.

Delegate Mizeur has run the best campaign of any candidate in either party. But she probably cannot overcome her main target: her own Democratic Party. The political culture she wants to change is too firmly rooted, too strong — and, actually, too successful. Hughes was running against a culture of corruption.

Few, if any, gave Mizeur any chance at all in the beginning — or now — even as we think about whether the race has developed in a way that has made her competitive.

Unlike Hughes, she cannot offer herself as an antidote to rampant self-dealing. Changing the culture may be important, but it’s a bit abstract.

Hughes had a lot of luck. At first, he squandered the crime platform to concentrate on jobs. Important to be sure, but the political leverage was elsewhere. Campaign consultants in New York, critiquing his campaign, asked him if he really wanted to win. Belatedly, he got their point. By then, though, he seemed likely to finish in the weeds.

An endorsement for Mizeur from The Baltimore Sun could happen, but it seems unlikely. Hughes actually did get one. On Page 1, to the near astonishment of the political establishment. The paper’s editorial staff pondered and decided finally its job was to nominate what it thought was the best available candidate, one not remotely associated with Marvin Mandel. Mandel’s lieutenant governor, Lee, was disqualified. He was also from Montgomery County, which did not thrill the Baltimore newspaper.

The Sun’s endorsement seemed to have made voters believe their vote would not be wasted on the dark horse Hughes. His surge in the polls was so dramatic that pollsters didn’t trust the trends they saw in their own numbers.

Hughes helped himself in the last campaign debate. He looked gubernatorial. His prime opponent, Lee, focused on asserting that all politicians were not crooks.

Before the endorsement, Hughes had drawn one of the most famous lines in recent Maryland political history. Hughes was a “lost ball in tall grass,” said the late state Sen. Harry McGuirk. The newspaper found him.

Like Hughes in 1978, Mizeur does not have the baggage carried by her opponents. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown struggles to escape the charge that he mishandled the Obamacare rollout after serving as a high-profile leader of that effort. Attorney General Doug Gansler was damaged by his reaction to a teen drinking party and his alleged misuse of his state police drivers.

None of the Democrats has inspired anyone. It’s a sizzle-free campaign. Mizeur is not the picture of charisma either, but her calm demeanor has impressed many.

Hughes raced by Lee in that two- or three-week period at the end of a campaign when voters start to think seriously about how they will vote. This would be another reason not to dismiss her candidacy out of hand. The number of undecided voters has been remarkable, but many were taken before they saw much of Mizeur. She may be peaking at just the right moment — part of the strategy, one of her supporters says with a wink.

Brown’s early momentum may have been blunted, but he’s black running in a primary where 30 percent or more of the voters will be black.

Turnout may be the name of the game. It’s likely to be light. Advantage Brown. It would be shocking if he didn’t have an Election Day juggernaut. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s organization will exert itself as if O’Malley himself were running. The governor himself must see this election as a referendum on his eight-year administration. Brown’s effort has been reinforced by some of President Obama’s campaign wizards.

Maybe Mizeur’s ground game will be as good as her candidate game.

If she’s to win, it will have to be.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.