Even Close Supporters Unsure of Ehrlich's Political Plans

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

More than a thousand fans of former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are expected to turn out Saturday for a family corn roast, where children will be able to take pony rides while their parents pose for pictures with the Republican and his wife. Proceeds will go to a campaign account Ehrlich has kept open since his 2006 reelection loss.

The event in Reisterstown comes a week after Ehrlich was the main attraction at a Republican spaghetti dinner in Cockeysville and another event just days before, where he was warmly received over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres by a GOP women's club in Potomac.

There is no question that Ehrlich is ratcheting up his political activity as he prepares to announce whether he will seek a rematch with Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), a decision that is largely defining next year's campaign season in Maryland.

Ehrlich's entrance would provide a much-needed shot of adrenaline for Republicans at a time when the party's prospects are on the rise seemingly everywhere but Maryland, where the state GOP has been mired in infighting and has a remarkably thin bench of candidates with statewide potential. Despite his loss three years ago, Ehrlich -- the state's only Republican governor in a generation -- is widely seen as the party's best hope for toppling O'Malley.

Democrats would relish a decision by Ehrlich to stay on the sidelines, avoiding a serious challenge at a time when the state budget could make O'Malley more vulnerable than otherwise in a heavily Democratic state. That could allow the party to channel more resources into races where Democrats are threatened, including the congressional district that includes the Eastern Shore and several state legislative seats beyond Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

Ehrlich's decision -- and just how much longer his party will have to wait for it -- remains anything but clear. He said he is unsure, and people who have recently spoken to him say he is genuinely undecided about entering a race that he is uncertain to win. But that hasn't kept even his closest associates from reading their hopes into his actions.

"I think he's running. He just doesn't know it yet," said Richard E. Hug, Ehrlich's chief fundraiser for both his 2002 and 2006 campaigns, who said he is prepared to start raising the millions of dollars that will be required for 2010 as soon as necessary.

In an interview, Ehrlich said he is taking a "pragmatic approach" in assessing whether the environment is ripe for his return -- and insisted there is no timetable for an announcement.

"If Maryland wants to go in my direction, I'm very willing and happy to lead," he said, between posing for photos with admirers in a back room at the dinner in Cockeysville.

Ehrlich ticked off a number of factors he is weighing, including the outcome of next month's gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, two states that President Obama won last year but where recent polls have showed Republican candidates for governor leading.

Associates said Ehrlich is planning a poll in Maryland shortly after those elections, which could help guide his thinking. A public poll released last week showed a 2010 matchup no closer than in 2006, when O'Malley won by 6.5 percentage points.

Still, Ehrlich boosters say they anticipate a far more favorable climate next year than in 2006, when an unpopular President Bush was a drag on Ehrlich. Even as he lost in 2006, polls suggested Ehrlich was well-liked by Marylanders. And O'Malley's ambitions and job approval have been constrained by repeated rounds of budget cuts that are certain to continue into next year.

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