Md. GOP Focuses on Future Possibilities

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

hST. PAUL, Minn. -- With the arrival of Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast, there was little overt talk here yesterday morning about 2008 politics, much less the marquee races that will be on Maryland's ballot in 2010. But as the state's Republican convention delegates gathered for the first in a series of breakfasts this week, the uncertainty surrounding the party's future was an undeniable subtext.

Noticeably absent was the Maryland GOP's largest luminary from the recent past, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is almost universally regarded as the party's best hope for the future, despite his loss to Gov. Martin O'Malley two years ago.

The only other Maryland politician with real star power for the GOP, former lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele, is in St. Paul but was not present as delegates filed past a TV showing Fox News's coverage of Gustav and into a private dining room at their hotel. Steele, who lost a U.S. Senate race two years ago, is most focused this week on his duties as chairman of GOPAC, an organization that recruits Republican candidates across the country.

Four years ago, as they arrived in New York for their party's convention, Ehrlich and Steele were riding high amid talk of a political "realignment" in heavily Democratic Maryland. There was still buzz surrounding Ehrlich's 2002 upset of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, which made him Maryland's first GOP governor in a generation. And Steele landed a prominent speaking spot as he was gaining national attention as an African American Republican.

Today, Ehrlich and Steele remain circumspect about whether they intend to challenge O'Malley in 2010. Ehrlich said in an interview that he considers it "very premature" to make a decision and has no timetable for doing so. Steele has expressed interest in running for governor but has said he would defer to Ehrlich.

Such talk has prompted many here to ask privately, and in some cases publicly, this question: If not Ehrlich or Steele, then who?

"I just don't know of anybody who fits that bill," said Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R), who is among the highest-ranking Maryland Republicans at the convention. "I would think those in the legislature would want to stay there, and those in the counties would want to stay there."

Leopold, a former legislator who is regarded as a maverick, suggested that Republicans should be most focused on building a strong record of governing in the offices they do occupy. He said a victory by John McCain at the national level could provide a helpful example in Maryland of how Republicans can lead when they choose to work with both parties.

"If you can govern well, that's what people are most interested in," said Leopold, adding that he plans to seek reelection in 2010.

Though his views are hardly universal, they do reflect a state party trying to come to terms with a realistic vision of its future -- even at a time when O'Malley's job approval ratings are sagging in the wake of tax increases last year intended to address chronic budget problems.

As of July, Maryland Democrats enjoyed a more than 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans in registered voters. Despite talk of a realignment, that ratio has actually increased somewhat since Ehrlich beat Townsend in November 2002.

At that time, Democrats accounted for about 56 percent of registered voters, roughly the same figure as today. The percentage of Maryland voters registered as Republicans has declined, from about 30 percent in 2002 to less than 28 percent. There has been an uptick in unaffiliated voters during the same period.

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