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Slots Without The Campaign Megabucks?

Put Peter Franchot up against Martin O'Malley in a statewide vote and there can be little doubt that the pesky comptroller from Takoma Park would face a rough time against Maryland's charming governor, even if O'Malley's popularity numbers have drooped to Bush levels.

That's why the governor is only too happy to let this fall's showdown over slot machines be portrayed as an epic face-off between the two Democratic rivals. That's also why Franchot -- the highest state official to stand up against slots and someone who would love to be governor someday -- is simultaneously putting himself out there as the public face of the anti-slots campaign and trying to argue that it's not all about him.

"We want very much for this to be a big tent," says Aaron Meisner, a Baltimore stockbroker and chairman of Stop Slots Maryland, one of several groups in the splintered anti-slots campaign. "But the political reality is there is antagonism between the governor and the comptroller. Lots of people who are strong supporters of the governor but aren't strong supporters of Peter Franchot want to be involved but are holding back. It does create a challenge."

Minor Carter, an Annapolis lobbyist who has long represented anti-slots activists, says Franchot is "very determinedly running an independent campaign against the establishment" that threatens to tear a hole in the anti-slots coalition of church groups, Republicans and black Democrats (especially from the Washington suburbs).

Even Franchot's allies concede things aren't exactly copacetic on the anti-slots side. "We're not always one big happy family," says Scott Arceneaux, senior adviser to Marylanders United to Stop Slots, a new group in which Franchot is playing a central role. "But we are a family." He says Franchot gives the anti-slots drive a well-known, high-ranking politician who can attract news coverage -- an essential in a campaign that expects to be outspent by a huge margin.

But Arceneaux acknowledges it's been tough to get other elected officials to join the campaign, even among those who oppose slots on principle. "There is a misimpression out there that this is just going to pass easily," he says. Statewide polls this year put the pro-slots side ahead, with anywhere from 54 percent to 58 percent of the vote. Arceneaux says the more voters learn about the details of the plan, the softer support for slots becomes.

Franchot says his main concern is to let voters know that "slots are a sleazy and shady industry" and that "the vast majority of individuals who are going to go to these slots parlors are working-class families." He agrees that the anti-slots side is divided by "different personalities and agendas," and he accuses many of his fellow politicians of "hiding behind a tree." But Franchot says voters will dismiss his rivalry with O'Malley as "just Annapolis parlor talk."

"I never feel lonely," Franchot says, "because as soon as I get half a mile from State Circle, people are patting me on the back." Voters, he says, understand that slots are a cheap way to avoid tax increases by encouraging those who can least afford it to dump money into one-armed bandits.

Franchot and O'Malley are able to claim center stage in this show only because just six months before the vote, the big gambling and horse track companies that you'd expect to be pouring millions into this campaign are being awfully shy.

The companies that own the five likely sites for slots palaces obviously have a big stake in the success of the vote. Meanwhile, some other big players in the industry have a natural interest in helping the anti-slots campaign, seeking to protect their investments in neighboring states, where slots parlors now draw heavily from Maryland gamblers.

But the state's track owners say they might not open their checkbooks because there's no guarantee that they would win the slots licenses envisioned in Maryland's plan. Because the legislation doesn't specifically name Laurel Park, its owner, Magna Entertainment, which also owns Pimlico in Baltimore, is holding back.

"I may be monopolizing the market on wishful thinking here, but there's no evidence that the big gambling companies are ramping up for this campaign," Meisner says.

What if they threw a slots campaign and neither side was able to gin up the money needed to sell its message?

Goodness -- voters might have to consider the merits of the proposal rather than the quality of the ads they see on TV.

That's probably too optimistic. More likely, especially in hard times, many people will see slots as a way to get the other guy to pay for state services. The wheels are spinning.

By Marc Fisher |  April 27, 2008; 8:47 AM ET
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