Saying his work in Baltimore is incomplete, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced yesterday that he will not be a candidate for governor this year - clearing the way for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to run unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
"There is no tougher fight, and no more noble cause, than the turnaround of a great American city," O'Malley said, adding that the decision to forgo the campaign was the most difficult of his political life.
"The risk of losing this particular race was really not something that intimidated me," he said.
"In the final battle between head and heart, my conscience just wouldn't allow me to take the risk that the hard work and sacrifices of these last 2 1/2 ... years might have been in vain."
In a 10-minute address that aides said he wrote himself, the mayor did not mention Townsend's name.
She is the only announced Democratic candidate and the front-runner in every poll to date.
O'Malley said he would support the Democratic nominee but made clear his disdain for Townsend by repeating his assertion that the state party suffers from a "vacuum of leadership."
His announcement removed the last apparent obstacle in Townsend's bid for the nomination and signaled the true start of this year's campaign.
Barring unforeseen developments, the Nov. 5 match will pit Townsend against U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Timonium Republican.
"Now the race is joined. The race is clear. There are two candidates," said Ehrlich, who immediately challenged the lieutenant governor to six televised debates and candidate forums.
Townsend said she was pleased with the mayor's decision, and she pledged to "work hard" for the city.
"I think it's great that we will work together to make sure Baltimore is the greatest city in Maryland and the greatest city in the country," she said.
Impact on candidates
O'Malley's announcement bolsters Townsend's candidacy by allowing her to save money for the general election while avoiding the potential damage of charges leveled during a primary fight.
For Ehrlich, the impact is mixed, political observers said. The Republican would have preferred to face an opponent scarred by three months of intensive intra-party campaigning.
But Ehrlich believes he can now tap financial supporters in the Baltimore-area business community who he says have been withholding donations until O'Malley made up his mind.
O'Malley's decision follows an intense push by the city's business and Democratic political leaders to persuade him to stay in City Hall.
The front man for an Irish rock band, with irrefutable charisma and a deep reservoir of ambition, O'Malley, 39, is credited with restoring hope and energy to teetering neighborhoods.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she "begged" O'Malley not to enter the race.
"The truth is, if he left now, we'd say we had a promising young mayor there for a couple of years, but he didn't stay long enough to do the job," she said.
"We worked hard," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, referring to the effort to persuade the mayor to stay. "We had discussions. ... We are going to have a difficult race with the Republican nominee, and we need all hands on deck."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said, "A lot of people have made their desires known to him. I did it months ago."
Rawlings might have received one of the first signals that O'Malley was ready to skip the race.
On May 23, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Maryland Dental School, O'Malley scribbled a list of "do's and don'ts" for the state's next governor and handed it to Rawlings. Among the requests: money for a Johns Hopkins biotechnology center, more drug treatment funding and increased aid for schools.
Rawlings gave the list to Townsend.
Building a bridge
"I wanted to be helpful in creating a bridge that the two of them could walk over together to victory," he said, adding that he expects the lieutenant governor to address the mayor's concerns.
"I think you will hear a responsiveness on her part, starting with [today's] speech" before a public policy group, he said.
Townsend campaign spokesman Michael Morrill said that there was no quid pro quo between the mayor and lieutenant governor over city funding issues and that Townsend supported most of the items on the mayor's list before seeing it.
Likewise, O'Malley denied yesterday that any pledge by Townsend or her supporters influenced his thinking.
"Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was not promised financial or political support in the future in return for not running," the mayor said in his speech. "In the final analysis, my decision had a lot more to do with governing than politics."
O'Malley's pronouncement was cheered by members of Maryland's Democratic establishment, who said they were thrilled to avoid a bruising primary between rising political stars.
"It was a large sacrifice on his part, in the sense that he did not have to do this," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"He could have run and stirred the pot. It would have enhanced his name recognition for a future race, while developing a statewide base of supporters and party workers and poll workers," Miller said. "Democrats should congratulate him and thank him."
Said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.: "It's exactly what I expected him to do. I'm glad he finally did it." Democrats can now "begin our team-building much quicker," he said.
"I think he made the right decision for himself and for his family," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who brushed aside the mayor's jabs at Townsend and other Democrats. "I don't think he meant to suggest there is no one who can provide that leadership," he said.
Although O'Malley's political aspirations clearly extend beyond City Hall, he would have faced a challenging contest against Townsend, the daughter of former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. She has collected more than $6 million for her gubernatorial bid and holds a healthy lead over the mayor in polls.
"It would have been all but impossible to beat a Kennedy in a Democratic primary," Ehrlich said.
Many of Maryland's leading politicians who openly considered running against her had already reached that conclusion, including Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
"The city of Baltimore is going to support Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. That's been clear for some time now," said Duncan, who has endorsed Townsend.
"It became very clear that if he got in the race, it would be in the role of a spoiler and would have hurt her in the general election."
Schaefer weighs in
State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor and governor, said O'Malley's exploratory forays outside Baltimore were unsuccessful. "He went around the state and found out he wasn't as popular as he thought he was," Schaefer said.
Only the mayor's staunchest supporters offered a different view. "I don't think Martin loses a race he gets into," said Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., O'Malley's father-in-law.
With no significant challengers on the September ballot, Ehrlich and Townsend are free to prepare messages that will appeal to the moderate swing voters needed to win November's general election, instead of the more ideologically driven faithful who turn out for primaries.
"O'Malley could have been Townsend's worst nightmare," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based pollster. "He had that potential to get the limelight and go after her on a variety of fronts.
"The practical effect is that she will not have to spend $3 million to $4 million in a very competitive, knock-down, drag-out fight to win the Democratic nomination," Haller said. "She has the ability to save the resources and focus on a general election strategy."
Donald Norris, a public policy professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agreed. "Now [Townsend] has an additional three months to prepare her case against Ehrlich," Norris said.
O'Malley used his speech to reflect not only on his political future, but on his accomplishments and his vision for the city.
"No longer the most violent and addicted city in America, Baltimore now leads the nation in the rate of reduction of violent crime," he said.
"Our first-graders are scoring above the national average in reading and math for the first time in 30 years," he said. "And the highest-scoring fifth-grade math class in the entire state of Maryland: none other than ... the 100 percent proud, African-American kids of our own Mount Royal Elementary School."
He also made mention of his friend Paul Levin, a member of the band O'Malley's March who died last week. "Your problem, Martin, is you're drawn to the toughest fights," the mayor recalled Levin saying. "But serving Baltimore now is the tougher of the two fights you weigh."
O'Malley said he would work to make Baltimore a city "where our children are safe, a city where our children are loved and where children are raised to love."
Soon, the city will have one more youngster. As his pregnant wife, Baltimore Circuit Judge Catherine O'Malley, sat in a folding chair to the left of the podium, O'Malley announced that the family's fourth child will be a boy.
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.