Md. Governor's Race: Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A Politician Who Thinks Like a Linebacker

"He's a linebacker in mentality. He has always been able to take a hit and return it with that much more," says D. Bruce Poole, a longtime Democratic friend of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The governor had dropped by to teach a rhetoric class. It was mere weeks before Election Day, and Bob Ehrlich held forth in a small auditorium at Towson University, sleeves rolled up and a microphone in hand.

He asked the students to imagine themselves as political consultants. Their hypothetical candidate was a Republican governor. "Very handsome, by the way," he joked, flashing a smile. "Two beautiful children. Beautiful wife."

But there were problems, Ehrlich admitted: The state tilts heavily Democratic. The governor has been fighting with the legislature. Newspaper editors are not always in his corner. "When you are an incumbent," he added, "the election is generally about you ."

This much he knows as he faces the race of his political life.

After 20 years of pulling out victories at the ballot box -- young and on the rise in the state House and in Congress before his election as governor at age 44 -- Ehrlich is now trailing his opponent, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D), in an array of polls.

But Ehrlich has come from behind before. This is the 16th contest of his political career. He has never lost.

If he clinches it, his political profile will change markedly, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. As a two-time Republican victor in a predominantly Democratic state, "he will emerge as a figure in national Republican politics," Crenson said.

If Ehrlich loses, he will be thrust out of elective office for the first time since he was 28.

How it turns out will depend, in part, on how voters view Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- a college linebacker-turned-lawyer who rose from working-class roots to make history in 2002 as the first Republican governor in Maryland in more than a generation.

Even many of his critics say the 48-year-old governor is likable -- affable and unpretentious, the kind of guy who slaps backs, cracks jokes, talks sports. He has a strong streak of the Everyman.

But they also say the competitive edge that has helped him win football games and political campaigns has sometimes worked against him during his four years as governor.

"To understand Bob, you have to go back to his days of playing sandlot football," said D. Bruce Poole, a Democratic friend and former House majority leader who supports Ehrlich. "He is competitive. He's a linebacker in mentality. He has always been able to take a hit and return it with that much more."

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