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GOP wins may encourage Ehrlich to run for Md. governor

"I think the party would be extremely upset," Sauerbrey said. "If Bob chose not to run at the last minute, it would be very difficult for anyone else to come in without the fundraising ability and name recognition he has."

Among those who say they remain in the dark about Ehrlich's intentions is Larry Hogan, who has emerged as the Republican's leading backup candidate in a state without much of a GOP bench.

Hogan, a real estate broker who served as Ehrlich's appointments secretary, a Cabinet-level position, announced an exploratory bid for governor in September. But he said at the time that he would not run if Ehrlich, whom he considers a good friend, gets in the race.

"I've encouraged him to make a decision sooner rather than later, and like everyone else, I'm anxiously awaiting his decision," Hogan said Thursday.

To this point, Maryland Republicans have done little to try to capitalize on the national mood in statewide races. Hogan and other gubernatorial hopefuls have remained deferential to Ehrlich. And no serious candidates have emerged for attorney general or comptroller, two separately elected offices on the ballot this fall. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) faces a little-known opponent for reelection.

The downsides

In the 2006 governor's race, Ehrlich lost to O'Malley by 6.5 percentage points. And even though Republicans are winning in places where they normally struggle, there remains much about Maryland that gives pause even to some of his allies.

Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 advantage in party registration, a gap that has grown since 2006. And although the ranks of independent voters are growing, they are not nearly the force in Maryland as in New Jersey and Massachusetts, where they propelled Republicans to victory.

Moreover, African Americans, a loyal Democratic voting bloc, make up a far larger share of the electorate in Maryland than in most states, including Massachusetts.

A poll released two weeks ago by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showed that despite the sour national mood, O'Malley held a nine-point lead over Ehrlich in a hypothetical rematch.

Ehrlich would also start the race at a significant financial disadvantage. Earlier this month, O'Malley reported having more than $5.7 million in the bank. Ehrlich helped other GOP candidates with money during the past year but raised little for himself, reporting only about $141,000 in an account he has kept open since his 2006 loss.

What are the odds?

Ehrlich, a former state delegate and U.S. congressman, has said repeatedly that he needs to be convinced he can win before running. A large part of his calculus involves predicting who will show up. In that respect, Ehrlich said his polling, which aides declined to share, was promising.

Ehrlich said the December survey showed him within striking distance of O'Malley. The results grew more favorable, he said, the more the sample was narrowed to include those most likely to vote. One reason Ehrlich advisers cite for delaying an announcement is to continue monitoring the public mood.

Another reason is that they expect an onslaught from Democrats if and when Ehrlich decides to run. Democratic Party officials are preparing to portray Ehrlich as a big spender -- out of step with the current public mood -- by citing larger increases in his budgets than those O'Malley has submitted in recessionary times.

Pressed about the timing of his decision, Ehrlich acknowledged it is unlikely to come before March -- the same month he announced in 2002, the year he upset then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D).

"March would be a good time frame in terms of having a decision," Ehrlich said.

During stops on his listening tour, some people have cautioned him against running, Ehrlich said. Some have urged him to instead challenge Mikulski, who enjoys far more robust approval ratings than O'Malley. But mostly "It's 'Go for it' in the governor's race," Ehrlich said.

Still, in an address to about 200 people Monday night at the event in Hagerstown, Ehrlich barely acknowledged his own political deliberations after praising the two candidates for delegate.

"I don't know what's going to happen with me in the future," he told the crowd. "I do not know."

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