Maryland governor's race could feature 2 from Ehrlich team

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Susan Biddle - Twp)
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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Marylanders could still see a marquee rematch for governor this year between two of the state's best-known politicians, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

But another scenario might be just as likely: that O'Malley will get tag-teamed by two of Ehrlich's former Cabinet secretaries, one in the Democratic primary and the other in the general election.

George W. Owings III, a lifelong Democrat from Southern Maryland who served as Ehrlich's secretary of veterans affairs, is poised to announce on Wednesday a long-shot bid to topple O'Malley in the primary.

Waiting in the wings is Larry Hogan, a Republican who was Ehrlich's appointments secretary. That job involved recruiting thousands of people to join Ehrlich's government -- including Owings, a former state legislator.

A blunt-spoken Annapolis real estate broker, Hogan has spent months traveling the state to build support as the Republicans' backup candidate if Ehrlich does not run. Hogan said he is eager to hear "sooner rather than later." Ehrlich has sent mixed signals about his intentions, and several people close to him say he remains undecided.

Although Owings and Hogan say their efforts are not coordinated, both are targeting conservative Democrats disaffected by O'Malley. Reaching such voters is the only way to a Republican victory in a state in which Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in party registration.

But this group is a natural base for Owings, who, during 16 years as a legislator, took positions far more conservative than most in his party. He was -- and remains -- an unabashed supporter of guns and tobacco and an opponent of abortion.

"He is, in many respects, at the opposite end of the party than the current governor," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who has endorsed O'Malley. "George is sort of like a throwback to the 1950s, when tobacco was king."

In an interview, Owings acknowledged that his views would make him an unlikely candidate to prevail in a normal Democratic primary, in which the more liberal members of the party tend to turn out in greater numbers. But Owings said that economic anxiety could drive many more conservative Democrats to the polls this year.

"If the fear, anger and desperation grab hold, I give myself a very good chance," said Owings, a former Marine who served in Vietnam. "Many have written this off as folly or an egotistical trip. But I don't do anything halfheartedly."

O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell declined to handicap the prospects of Hogan or Owings, whom O'Malley replaced as veterans affairs secretary four months after taking office in 2007.

"The governor is focused right now on doing everything he can do to create jobs and make the tough decisions that Maryland needs in this difficult time," Russell said.

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