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When Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley speaks these days, the three words most likely to come out of his mouth are “jobs,” “jobs” and “jobs.”

As he heads into an election year, O’Malley (D) is ratcheting up his rhetoric and policy proposals concerning employment, an area in which Democratic governors seeking reelection could be most vulnerable.

In short order, O’Malley has stitched together a 10-point plan, made up of relatively modest initiatives, to help small businesses. He has put forward a three-part legislative proposal that includes a tax credit for companies that hire the unemployed. He has launched a traveling “university” to promote minority business opportunities. And just recently, O’Malley unveiled a plan to provide short-term relief for companies facing a threefold increase next year in unemployment insurance taxes.

The burst of activity, which has drawn mixed reviews for substance and style, comes in the wake of the national unemployment rate topping 10 percent in October and high-profile Democratic losses last month in gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey.

“Difficult economies always hurt the president’s party, and that goes for governors as well,” said Kirby Goidel, a political science professor at Louisiana State University. “You want to give the perception to voters that you’re addressing their biggest concern.”

The call for job creation is “a refrain being heard in gubernatorial campaigns across the country,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, a senior editor of the Cook Political Report.

Incumbents from both major parties could be vulnerable next year. But Duffy’s publication, which is tracking the 37 governor’s races on the ballot, has seen support for Democrats slipping most noticeably in states where economic uncertainty is dominating early stages of campaigns.

So far, Duffy said, heavily Democratic Maryland has been an exception, in part because O’Malley does not have a high-profile opponent criticizing him daily in the media. The state’s November unemployment rate of 7.4 percent was also lower than the nation’s.

In an interview, O’Malley played down any political motivations and said his “more pointed” focus on jobs is consistent with the priority he has placed since he was elected in 2006 on “strengthening and growing our middle class.”

“I don’t know that New Jersey and Virginia factored into it as much as our shared realization of how many jobs we’ve lost,” said O’Malley, who is vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. “We have to be extremely clear about what the mission is here: When we’re experiencing some of the worst unemployment rates our nation has ever seen, we’ve got to be focused on creating jobs.”

O’Malley has pushed other proposals aimed at the middle class, including a four-year freeze on public university tuition and steps to stem the tide of home foreclosures. And he has spoken often about “workforce development” issues.

But rhetorically, there has been nothing comparable to recent weeks.

O’Malley’s heightened focus came into full view last month with the announcement of a deal with a private operator at the Port of Baltimore. Flanked by applauding workers, O’Malley played up the promise of 5,700 construction and operational jobs in coming years.

“Sing it with me, people: ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs,’ ” O’Malley said. “This deal is all about job creation in Maryland, job creation now . . . not 10 years from now, not 20 years, but job creation now.”

O’Malley’s proposals since then have included a $3,000 tax credit to companies for each unemployed worker they hire; an expansion of state guarantees of small-business loans; and a plan to lower unemployment insurance rates by altering the state’s system in ways sought by Congress and President Obama.

The unemployment insurance plan drew criticism recently from business representatives who said it would provide only short-term relief while requiring companies to support an expensive and permanent expansion of the system.

The tax credit would be capped at $20 million under O’Malley’s plan, meaning companies could use it to help hire up to 6,700 workers. Hiring that many jobless workers would have the effect of reducing Maryland’s October unemployment rate from about 7.2 percent to less than 7 percent, said Robert Carpenter, an economics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

“For those people who are employed because of the credit, that would be a good thing,” Carpenter said. “But it would have a relatively small impact on the overall unemployment rate.”

Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) said he would expect even less of an impact because the credit is not enough to induce struggling companies to add workers.

“When the governor says, ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs,’ what he’s really saying is: ‘I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid! Don’t throw me out of office!’ ” Kittleman said.

Democrats have been more enthusiastic, but they also cautioned against high expectations. “The credit would definitely help,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery). “It’s probably the most we can do during the time when we have a big budget shortfall.”

In the interview, O’Malley acknowledged that his proposals are relatively modest compared with what Obama and Congress are considering on the national level, including using money from the government’s massive financial bailout program to spur job creation.

But O’Malley said it is important for Maryland to accomplish what it can, and he has promoted his proposals in recent media appearances, large and small. Those included a pitch on MSNBC to a national TV audience one morning this month and one to a far more targeted group the afternoon before. The latter was delivered by way of a single-camera webcast in which O’Malley and others gathered around a folding table.

“Certainly, government is not the answer to all of our problems,” O’Malley said during the webcast. “But I think government should be in the game.”


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