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Tied in Annapolis

As Linebacker and Candidate, Bob Ehrlich Won Against the Odds. Can He Still Recover a Fumble?

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page D01

As a teenager in suburban Baltimore, the future governor of Maryland used to play a rough brand of sandlot football with older, bigger guys. He gave as good as he got. Later, on scholarship at Princeton, he had to bulk up to survive as a linebacker. He not only thrived, he became co-captain.

In his first election, in 1986, he bucked his party by defeating an incumbent Republican state delegate. He fought his way to Congress in 1995.

As a stormy legislative session nears its end in Maryland, the political football called malpractice reform is hurtling toward Gov. Robert Ehrlich. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Two years ago, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, he became the first Republican to reach the governor's mansion in 36 years.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has frequently been the underdog, up against the odds, and every time he has found a way to triumph.

What happened? In the past two years, that triumphal arc has seemed stymied. The usual ability to get winning results has seemed to falter.

He feels like an underdog again, with the final score still in doubt.

Imagine: So much power -- yet still that uphill feeling.

It envelops him on this night -- especially on this night -- as the clock ticks toward midnight near the end of an extraordinary legislative session just after Christmas.

Tension plus fatigue has everyone acting a little giddy in the Annapolis State House. Dour doctors in white coats patrol the halls, proffering diagnoses of doom.

Ehrlich, 47, is supposed to be on a mountain in Western Maryland with first lady Kendel Ehrlich teaching their older son, Drew, 5, how to ski. Instead, he has rousted legislators from their holidays to fix the state's medical malpractice crisis. Many doctors are curtailing their practices rather than pay skyrocketing insurance premiums.

For the governor, the session is a high-stakes gamble. After months of barnstorming, he has elevated malpractice reform to the realm of paramount importance once occupied by his failed effort to bring slot machines to Maryland. Now, with the whole state watching, if he can't close a deal with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, it will suggest paralysis and invite parallels to two years of slots debacles.

In the corridor outside his office where visitors wait, an infinite-loop slide show clicks away. It is a gallery of sunny scenes of the handsome governor: giving a speech, attending the Preakness, handing out transportation funds, greeting a police officer, swinging a golf club, holding up his other son, 10-month-old Joshua.

The slides don't have captions but they could share one: "Being governor is fun."

Except at the moment. The special session is imploding.

Ehrlich happens to be standing near the slide show, in front of a photo of himself wearing sunglasses, when a GOP senator bounds over like a messenger boy holding a telegram.

The governor's face tightens into a bitter smile. The news: An agreement he thought he had reached has evaporated -- though Democratic leaders deny there was an agreement. Ehrlich laughs derisively as the senator recites the compromise bill the Democrats have just come up with -- fewer curbs on lawsuits than he wants and a 2 percent tax on health maintenance organizations to pay for doctor relief.

"That's leadership," he scoffs.

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