By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; A20
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.
Besides the twin losses of Ehrlich and Steele in 2006, the GOP also experienced setbacks in the legislature, where it holds 37 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates and 14 of 47 seats in the Senate.
Recapturing the governorship in 2010 is "very important," said Maryland GOP Chairman James Pelura. "But equally important is to gain strength in the General Assembly."
Echoing others in his party, Pelura suggested that Ehrlich would be the strongest candidate for governor in 2010, a year when Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) will also be up for reelection. Ehrlich, who has had a rocky relationship with current party leaders, attributed his decision to skip this year's convention to a busy work and family schedule.
"I think that until [Ehrlich] decides one way or another, anyone else who is considering it is laying low," Pelura said of the governor's race.
After November, attention will increasingly turn to 2010. Some delegates suggested privately that Ehrlich could do a disservice to other potential gubernatorial candidates if he does not make his intentions clear by early next year.
Yesterday's breakfast included a handful of legislators attending the convention as delegates or guests. Among them: House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), who has emerged as the most quotable critic of the O'Malley administration, and Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's), who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2004. None took command of the room.
O'Donnell, who said he has no plans to run for governor, said Republicans have several potential candidates who could take on O'Malley. "Time will tell who they are," O'Donnell said.
Ehrlich said there are several talented GOP members of the legislature whom he could envision seeking statewide office -- but probably not as soon as 2010.
As for revitalizing the Maryland Republican Party, "it's all about winning a big race, whether it's 2010 or 2012," Ehrlich said. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) will be up for reelection in 2012.
Despite O'Malley's current weakness in public approval polls, he still has a big advantage in Maryland because of party registration, said Don Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
"In Maryland, a good Democratic candidate running a good campaign beats a good Republican candidate running a good campaign every time," Norris said.
David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, said he sees no other candidates lurking for marquee races beyond Ehrlich and Steele.
"If they've got a superstar, they're keeping it a real secret," he said. "It's the product of not being able to develop much of a bench. I'm sure they will have better candidates down the road, but I don't know that that translates into candidates with better chances of winning."