ANNAPOLIS, Md. - If the race for the Democratic nomination for Maryland governor's race were a 15-round boxing match, then Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown would have won the first couple of rounds.
Brown racked up a series of high-profile endorsements ranging from the state teacher's union to Gov. Martin O'Malley to Rep. Elijah Cummings and Sen. Ben Cardin.
Then on top of that, leading challenger Attorney General Doug Gansler was forced to play defense following a series of potentially damaging incidents, including photos of him at his son's Senior Week party where underage drinking appeared to be taking place
Prior to that, Gansler had to respond to accusations by Maryland State Police that he allegedly ordered troopers assigned to him to speed and/or drive on the shoulder while taking him to routine appointments.
However, the fever over those incidents has calmed considerably in recent weeks, which has allowed Gansler to take to the offensive and figuratively start punching back. This includes urging Democratic candidates to sign a pledge against third-party funding.
Gansler has also been critical of Brown's handling of the rollout of Maryland's Health Exchange website; an initiative the lieutenant governor spearheaded and one in which has faced problems similar to the national site, healthcare.gov.
"We've always been a firm supporter of the Affordable Care Act," said Gansler spokesman Bob Wheelock. "To us, this is about performance, not policy. This was something Anthony Brown personally oversaw."
With the gubernatorial primary coming up June 24, Gansler's camp has refused to let his recent setbacks derail a campaign that has been years in the planning and one that has millions of dollars in the coffers. The campaign also recently released the first in a planned series of issue-based web videos.
Still, early polls show Gansler has a lot of ground to make up in the coming months. According to The Gonzales Research poll in October, 41 percent of those surveyed sided with Brown in a three-way race in the Democratic primary, with 21 percent going with Gansler. Del. Heather Mizeur polled at 5 percent with a third of Democrats still undecided.
At the same time, Gansler does have a high recognition rate, according to a poll released last month by Goucher College . That poll found that 58 percent of those polled recognized Gansler, compared to 62 percent for Brown.
"We've always tried to keep this campaign about the issues, and that is what we will continue to do," Wheelock said. "It's been the Brown campaign that has tried to distract voters."
Brown spokesman Justin Schall said it is the Gansler campaign that refuses to keep the campaign focused on issues such as crime, education and job creation. Schall added that Gansler has refused to sign a positive campaign pledge.
"It's disappointing that it took less than three hours for Attorney General Gansler to dismiss out of hand our pledge to run a positive campaign and reject negative attack ads," said Schall in a statement. "I think it says a lot about the kind of campaign that Gansler plans on running, and it's a shame that he wouldn't even consider taking this pledge."
Wheelock said the positive campaign pledge is a "political ploy" and is hypocritical to how Brown's camp has ran his campaign so far, which they said includes employing a full-time tracker to follow Gansler wherever he goes, hoping to capture "gotcha moments his campaign can then peddle to the media."
"So no, we aren't signing something whose ‘positive' spirit has already been violated by the Brown campaign months ago," said Wheelock in a statement. "Our campaign has been discussing issues and ideas that'll make a difference to Marylanders for months. We look forward to Lt. Governor Brown running on his ideas and record, he hasn't yet."
St. Mary's College political science professor Todd Eberly said Brown did an effective job of changing the narrative of the race early in the campaign as Gansler was considered the favorite in a state where the lieutenant governor has never been elected governor.
"Brown's campaign with all of the early endorsements impacted conventional wisdom that lieutenant governor can't go on to become governor in Maryland," Eberly said. "Then, with all of the early setbacks, Gansler wasn't prepared initially to respond."
However, Eberly said the race is far from over. Gansler, he said, has several issues to fire back on against Brown, including the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and the massive tax increases and fees residents have dealt with under O'Malley and Brown's watch.
This includes an increase in the sales tax, a jump in tolls for state tunnels and bridges and the stormwater remediation fees, also known as the "rain tax."
"Gansler was given a golden issue with the Affordable Care Act," Eberly said. "This was Brown's issue and Gansler now has a chance to right the ship. How Gansler responds moving forward will go a long way in deciding who will win the