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.