There is no grander stage for an ambitious Republican politician than the one erected this week at New York's Madison Square Garden.
The lineup of speakers who will take the podium at the Republican National Convention includes some of the most promising stock of the party's next generation. Yet one up-and-comer who will be nowhere near the microphone is Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
The one-time Baltimore congressman made ripples two years ago when he defeated a rising national Democratic star, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Winning the governorship of a state that has not seen a Republican in charge for more than a generation could have set him on a natural trajectory for national office.
But although Ehrlich's 2002 triumph revitalized Maryland's Republican Party, political scientists and party insiders say it has not given much of a boost to his own future.
Not only is Ehrlich missing from this week's list of gubernatorial headliners -- potential candidates for the 2008 ticket such as Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George E. Pataki of New York and Jeb Bush of Florida -- he is also nowhere to be found among the GOP's younger hot prospects.
While Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and even Ehrlich's own number two, Michael S. Steele, will grab flickers of the convention spotlight at the podium, the Maryland governor will remain largely in the shadows. His schedule shows only a smattering of appearances at fundraisers and receptions. The buzz about 2008 trails others, but not Ehrlich.
"I never hear him mentioned," University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said when asked about the pool of future presidential candidates.
"It's not that he didn't make a splash," Sabato said. "Anytime a Republican beats a Kennedy, everyone takes notice. But they know almost nothing about what he's done since Election Day."
Some of this has clearly been by design. In an interview, Ehrlich said he is "focused on being successful in Maryland."
"If you do that," he said, "the politics takes care of itself."
But confidants said the governor has been more pointed in private, ordering them to stifle any talk of office beyond Maryland's borders, and that's what his aides do when asked whether the governor harbors ambitions of joining the national ticket in 2008.
"There are no national ambitions. There is no 2008," is how Communications Director Paul E. Schurick puts it.
If the goal has been to stay off of the national radar, Ehrlich has achieved it, largely by avoiding the tried-and-true methods for governors interested in upward mobility.
They can become active in the National Governors Association, as former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D) did when he was angling for a spot in a prospective Al Gore administration. They can develop a signature issue -- such as Glendening's "Smart Growth" initiative, or then-Gov. George W. Bush's Texas education initiatives -- and try to export it to other states.
"Ehrlich has done none of that," Republican consultant Frank J. Donatelli said. "If he were to come up with some hot idea, he could expand his influence. But he has stuck to a modest reform agenda. His program is strong, but hardly radical."
Besides holding the line on taxes, Ehrlich's only major initiative has been a plan to legalize slot machine gambling. If approved by the legislature, it would generate billions in revenue, but it is not likely to earn him a national reputation as an innovator.
Even his work for President Bush has been tempered to some degree. Last week, he went on local radio and declared that if there's any question about where Bush should devote campaign resources, he should not bother directing them to Maryland. A personal visit, he said, would be a waste of time.
Democratic rivals seized on the statement, saying it signaled the governor's reluctance to be drawn too close to Bush in a state where the president is far down in the polls.
Ehrlich aides reject this notion but do say that the governor knows enough to steer well clear of any rhetoric that goes too hard on Democrats.
"We know where we're from," said one aide, referring to the fact that Maryland's registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.
Others suggest that there may be more strategic motivations for Ehrlich to back away from the national spotlight now and focus instead on his 2006 reelection bid. Prime among them is the desire to establish a sharp contrast between himself and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a likely Democratic challenger in 2006.
At a relatively young age, O'Malley has been hailed as the Next Big Thing in Democratic presidential politics, and he has taken many of the familiar steps to burnish his national profile.
He is active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, became a key voice in urban homeland security issues and, unlike Ehrlich, spoke at his party's national convention this year.
That juxtaposition could work to Ehrlich's advantage in 2006, said Republican consultant Scott Reed.
"It's easy to be seduced into traveling nationally and courting that kind of attention," Reed said. "But it shows discipline to stay home and focus on governing. Defeating a Kennedy was big for Ehrlich, but getting reelected as a Republican in Maryland would be much, much bigger."
If that happens, Reed said, Ehrlich may find himself on the list of hot prospects, whether he wants to be there or not.