BALTIMORE (AP) — When Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake ascended to office in the wake of her predecessor’s scandal, some doubted her competence. A year and a half later, observers say her first mayoral campaign is hers to lose.

“Now, critics are saying she’s not exciting enough, that she doesn’t think outside the box. That means her performance has been good,” said Matthew Crenson, an emeritus professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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The Democratic mayor has become more polished, and the down economy looms large in voter’s minds, he added.

“When times are tough, people want a tough, solid, reliable leader,” Crenson said.

That’s how top Maryland Democrats, including Gov. Martin O’Malley, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Elijah Cummings, painted Rawlings-Blake at last week’s official announcement of her mayoral bid outside her childhood home.

Rawlings-Blake is the daughter of a popular state delegate and worked as a public defender. In 1995, she was the youngest person elected to the City Council at age 25 and became Council president in 2007. She became mayor last year when Democrat Sheila Dixon resigned after an embezzlement conviction and separate plea to lying about gifts from her developer ex-boyfriend.

Early in her tenure, Rawlings-Blake pushed for reforms to the city’s ethics board and faced a $121 million projected budget shortfall with layoffs, agency reorganizations and new taxes. Despite the tight budget, Rawlings-Blake has fully funded the city’s commitment to its school system and an initiative to fill 400 police officer vacancies. City schools’ reading and math proficiency had been climbing, but this year’s Maryland School Assessment scores dropped as stricter testing security was implemented in response to cheating at several schools.

Rawlings-Blake is not a flamboyant public character like designer-wear Dixon, whose furs became evidence and were later sold on eBay, or O’Malley, who sings and plays guitar in a Celtic rock band and as mayor of Baltimore had a penchant for donning city employee uniforms and War of 1812 garb. But voters may be willing to do without the drama they’ve seen in the past for a leader they think will get the job done, said C. Vernon Gray, a part-time Morgan State University political science professor and former Howard County Council president.

“People like to see more excitement in a leader, but they’ll see someone who is going to be methodical,” Gray said. “People know that they can count on her.”

Rawlings-Blake said people are always telling her to smile more.

“They want to know you’re enjoying it,” she said. “But for me, it’s about doing everything I can. Moving the city forward remains my singular focus. It’s not about promoting me.”

Because Rawlings-Blake gets plenty of media coverage by doing her job, it’s up to her challengers to raise the race’s profile as it builds slowly over the summer to a frenetic few weeks before the Sept. 13 primary, Gray said. The race is usually decided on that date, as Democrats make up 80 percent of the registered voters in the city of 620,000.

Former Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors Vice President and Councilman Joseph T. “Jody” Landers III, former city planning director and Dixon chief of staff Otis Rolley, perennial candidate Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway and nurse Wilton Wilson have filed for the Democratic primary. State Sen. Catherine Pugh and Councilman Carl Stokes plan to file Tuesday, the filing deadline.

One Republican, Vicki Ann Harding, has filed. Independent Catalina Byrd says she will run.

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Several challengers are focusing on property tax cuts. Rawlings-Blake has a task force developing a 10-year financial plan that includes lowering the property tax rate, which is twice those in surrounding jurisdictions, but she has said drastic cuts are unrealistic.

Landers is concentrated on property tax structure changes and the creation of a land bank get rid of vacant properties to reverse the city’s population loss.

Rolley’s priority is building economic opportunity by cutting through red tape entrepreneurs face and job creation. He wants make city government more transparent and efficient, and has proposed returning mayoral control for city schools and issuing private school vouchers to students at the worst schools.

Stokes, who showed well in polls during his unsuccessful 1999 mayoral bid, didn’t plan to get back into politics when he agreed to finish now-Council President Bernard “Jack” Young’s term, but he objects to the closure of recreation centers and says Baltimore hasn’t seen the steep declines in crime that other cities have.

Pugh wants to focus on the city’s human capital. She blames high taxes and violent crime for the population decline and wants to find work for young people.

The field of Democratic candidates is unusual in that it features two black women candidates — Rawlings-Blake and Pugh — and they could divide the vote, Crenson said.

Before Pugh got into the race, some saw her as Rawlings-Blake’s biggest competition. But because Pugh only represents one district of the city, her candidacy is unlikely to hurt the mayor’s chances, said Don Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“It will further divide the vote that the mayor would not get, but won’t hurt her,” he said. “If Pugh were a strong candidate and had a strong following, it might.”

Both female candidates say their gender and race won’t be a factor.

“People vote for the right person for the job,” Pugh said.

Landers, the only white mayoral candidate in a city that is about 64 percent black, doesn’t believe race is a factor for most voters in Baltimore anymore. After having white, black, male and female mayors, the candidates say they hope Baltimore is ready to look past race and gender.

“Maybe it mattered 12 years ago,” Stokes said. “But I would say I think it doesn’t matter.”

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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)