"People have an opportunity to look at those choices that two different men made while they were in office and decide for themselves," said O'Malley, who froze in-state tuition for four years.
The race promises a vigorous debate between two very different candidates. Both are exuberant campaigners with big personalities, and they don't like each other.
"This is a heavyweight match," said Michael Cain, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "It's going to be quite a race. It's exciting, and he's a very serious contender and I don't think people are able to predict this far out who is going to win."
Ehrlich, a moderate Republican, is a former member of Congress who hasn't lost any of the competitive spirit he had as a linebacker and captain of the Princeton University football team. Gov. Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's former two-term mayor, is a liberal Democrat with a personable sense of humor who enjoys taking the stage as the frontman of a Celtic rock band.
Ehrlich lost his 2006 re-election bid to O'Malley with 46 percent of the vote to 53 percent. For a long time, Ehrlich, 52, questioned whether he would run again in a state he thought may have shifted too far left for him to be a viable candidate. Maryland is a tough state for the GOP in statewide races because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 margin.
But the recession has made O'Malley's first term a grind of budget cutting and unpopular decisions. In 2007, his first year, he called a three-week special legislative session that resulted in $1.4 billion in tax increases to address a budget deficit and expand health care to 100,000 eligible low-income residents who are uninsured. About 61,500 people will be served under the expansion in the next fiscal year, the state estimates.
While Ehrlich deliberated whether to run, he worked at a Baltimore branch of a regional law firm and kept his name and ideas before the voters with a weekly radio show in Baltimore. And he's used that forum to denounce O'Malley's tax increases and warn that more could be on the way after the election if Democrats stay in control in Annapolis.
O'Malley, 47, has never been shy about blaming Ehrlich for the state's problems -- from the state budget to rising electricity bills. The two also feuded over struggling Baltimore schools, when Ehrlich was governor and O'Malley was mayor.
Political observers say Ehrlich faces an uphill battle. He is significantly behind in fundraising. The campaign for O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown reported having about $5.7 million on hand in January. Ehrlich reported a cash balance of $141,778 in January, but aides have pointed out Ehrlich waited until March 2002 to announce his plans to run in that year's race, and he prevailed over then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is Robert F. Kennedy's daughter.
On the Net:
Ehrlich campaign: http://www.bobehrlich.com
O'Malley campaign: http://www.martinomalley.com