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C. Fraser Smith: It’s game on in governor’s race

If you’re just tuning in, and most of you are just tuning in, the 2014 race for governor of Maryland involves the next-in-line Democrat and a Republican with only one head.

Seriously. This race pits a governor in waiting, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, against Larry Hogan, a GOP contender who seems able, competitive and hardly loony at all.

Instead of mere cannon fodder to be blown apart by Maryland’s 2-1 Democratic voter registration advantage, Hogan seems tightly focused on the primary pocketbook issues.

After this week’s televised debate, Hogan may be seen as the agenda setter. Amazing.

It’s the economy (or taxes), stupid, he was saying. (The line is attributed in political lore to James Carville, the Clinton campaign guru.) Social issues are important to the Democratic base, but the wider electorate (including the Democratic base) cares as much about the money issues as it does about gay rights or gun rights or women’s rights.

The debate may turn out to have been a game changer. Brown held a 9-point lead before the exchange began, according to a Washington Post poll. But Hogan entered the room with an enormous opportunity: a chance to introduce himself. He performed more than solidly for a newcomer.

Hogan aligned himself with Marylanders who he said have been “crushed” by the economic policies of Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Brown. (Never mind that governors don’t set economic policy.)

The GOP challenger knew about staying on message: 40 consecutive tax increases have pummeled Marylanders, he said repeatedly. Corporations are leaving the state in droves, he insisted. Did I mention that household incomes have been crushed (allegedly) by 40 consecutive tax increases?

Brown and his team had been listening — at least since a Washington Post poll Monday. The poll said jobs and the economy were most on the minds of Marylanders.

Brown virtually bounded onto the stage promising no new taxes. He, too, was willing to repeat himself.

We’ve heard that before, said Hogan, all but laughing. Taxes went up despite the promise. Brown chose not to address the 40 tax increases. He could have made an accurate and defensible explanation: The recession gave us no choice.

But it’s a bumper-sticker world. Better to emphasize the no new taxes promise. For viewers new to the campaign (and many of them, I assume, were brand new), it was a cleaner response — not something that would seem like an excuse.

Brown had his moments, to be sure. One of Hogan’s TV commercials says he’s not ready to be governor. Lieutenant governors have never struck Maryland voters as ready. None has ever won. But in the debate, this lieutenant governor seemed ready. He knew and presented the issues well — except for the importance of taxes and the economy. Hogan scored heavily there.

With some exceptions (Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for one), Maryland Republicans have often seemed desperate for gubernatorial candidates. Former Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey was another respectable candidate — almost a winner, in fact.

But the party once ran a former diplomat — who chose his wife as his lieutenant governor running mate. There have been years when the GOP sorted through various sports figures, hoping one of them might run.

Hogan must be encouraged by his performance in the polls so far. He could easily make up a 9-point deficit in the three weeks remaining before election day on Nov. 4. Concerned insiders say they see no “wave” building behind Hogan, but it’s still early. The fact that they’re worried about one says a lot.

Brown and his team urge voters to see Hogan as a slash-and-burn Republican who would cut school construction funds by $450 million.

The Republican has seemed less than dismissive of the charge.

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