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Intriguing Elections on Both Sides of River Blur Party Lines

By Robert Barnes
Friday, October 28, 2005

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hit pay dirt yesterday: a wood-paneled dining room filled with high rollers, the kind who laugh at all your jokes, appreciate all your applause lines and like to spend their money -- or at least their companies' money -- on politicians.

He could be forgiven for being a bit wistful that it was happening on the wrong side of the Potomac.

Ehrlich crossed the bridge to stump for Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore and was the headliner at a lunch in Tysons Corner that aides said would bring in upwards of $200,000 for Kilgore's campaign. The "grand benefactors" were some of the area's biggest home builders and high-tech companies, and Ehrlich was delighted to note that the political arm of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce was represented.

In Maryland, where Democrats have dominated the state's political landscape for decades, even chambers of commerce can't be reliably counted on for automatic endorsements of Republicans, he said.

"I've talked about the Patty Hearst syndrome," he said. "Where you start to identify with your captors."

Ever since Mark R. Warner became Virginia's governor nearly four years ago and Ehrlich scored his historic win in Maryland 12 months later, politicos have talked about the incongruity of having the red commonwealth ruled by a Democrat and a Republican in the bluer-than-blue Free State governor's mansion.

But next month's election in Virginia and next year's contests across the river offer intriguing matchups that will not only alter the composition of the region's political leadership but also test whether voters will continue to look beyond the party labels that have been a comfortable guidepost for years.

Virginia will have a new governor, of course, because of its status as the only state that does not allow a governor to run for reelection: Kilgore and Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine seem locked in a dead heat for that job. Ehrlich faces a tough reelection battle next year against either Martin O'Malley, the successful mayor of the state's largest city, or Douglas M. Duncan, the successful executive of the state's largest county. The region's longest serving U.S. senator, Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, is retiring, and the latest entrant in that race is Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

You can add to the mix a new mayor for the District and a new county executive in Montgomery.

Kaine and Steele have particularly interesting challenges. Both men are devout Catholics who say their religious faiths lead them to oppose the death penalty and abortion. Both men are running in states where their party identifications put them at an initial disadvantage. And both are moving toward the middle, and reaching out to members of the other party, in their campaigns.

At his announcement this week, Steele didn't mention that he would be Maryland's first Republican senator in two decades. In fact, he didn't mention the word "Republican" at all.

His speech had the ring of a moderate Democrat, or even a populist. He spoke of the need for a "new civil rights struggle" to create a legacy of wealth, and he appealed to the "people who wear uniforms every day, from the airmen at Andrews and the nurses, and police working the graveyard shift while we sleep, to the mechanic who balances tires by day and balances his business books by night."

And his campaign metaphor of being a bridge builder between differing groups sounds more like Bill Clinton than either George Bush. In liberal Maryland, he will more likely be on the defensive about his abortion views than his death penalty stance.

Kaine has been hammered by Kilgore on the death penalty, an issue with great voter appeal in a state with one of the nation's highest rates of executions. But he has countered by speaking extensively about his Catholic faith, something rare for a Democratic politician. And while he regularly criticizes Kilgore, he does not often extend his remarks to Republicans as a group.

At a big Richmond fundraiser last month, Kaine passed up the chance to give his supporters a red-meat attack on Kilgore and instead talked about how he and Warner had worked with Republicans on the state's fiscal problems.

"Perfect," a state house lobbyist said afterward. "We like to hear about them working together."

All in all, Kilgore is the one who seems most in the right place, a conservative Republican in a conservative state. But even that is playing out differently this year, as the Republican president who won the state easily last year now has approval ratings below the 50-percent line and the national party is caught up in a frenzy over a failed Supreme Court nomination and possible indictments.

Kilgore says those national events don't matter to his race; he points out that four years ago, Bush's approval rating was soaring and the state still elected Democrat Warner.

For his part yesterday, Ehrlich was looking for his own good news in Tysons Corner. "Who's here from Maryland?" he asked, and more than a few hands went up.

"There's Maryland cash here today," he told Kilgore. "Now, that's regional cooperation."

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