By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010; A01
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Tuesday that he will try to win his old job back in November, confirming plans for a much-anticipated rematch with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who defeated him in a bitter contest four years ago.
A formal announcement, planned for next Wednesday in Montgomery County, will set up a rematch between two of the state's dominant political personalities.
Both are fierce competitors. Their 2006 race was highly negative and at times intensely personal, with Ehrlich (R) repeatedly calling O'Malley "a whiner" and running ads that highlighted the homicide rate and struggling schools in Baltimore, where O'Malley was mayor. O'Malley (D) accused Ehrlich of dirty tricks and portrayed him as cozy with energy lobbyists and an unpopular President George W. Bush.
Ehrlich said Tuesday that he plans to run a forward-looking campaign, disputing characterizations of the race as a grudge match.
"The last thing that people want to see is a schoolyard, middle-school, who-struck-John, bully stuff right now," he said. "They want to hear your ideas about how you're going to fix it. They want to hear about your ideas about what you want to do."
Ehrlich will try to take advantage of what he has called "an anti-incumbent, anti-spending" sentiment among voters. But running as an outsider could be a difficult sell for a man who has spent 20 of the previous 24 years in public office, including a stint in Congress.
Still, Ehrlich's entry into the race is a testament to how much the national mood has shifted in favor of Republicans since President Obama's election in 2008. Ehrlich said Tuesday that he concluded back then that he was unlikely to ever win another statewide race in heavily Democratic Maryland but that he has since become emboldened by Republican victories in other states.
"Clearly, the environment did change," Ehrlich said during a conference call with reporters, during which he confirmed plans for an announcement in Rockville followed by an event that evening in his boyhood home town, Arbutus.The GOP's future
Ehrlich's performance could go a long way toward determining his party's relevance in Maryland. His 2002 upset of then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) ushered in unfulfilled promises of a GOP resurgence in the state, and a loss this year could further demoralize a party that is outnumbered by Democrats in Maryland by more than two to one.
Both candidates are likely to make the economy the central focus of the campaign. O'Malley argues that Maryland will emerge from the recession stronger than most states because of his financial stewardship, while Ehrlich says tax increases and other O'Malley initiatives have hurt the state's business climate.
"There's a real sense of concern about the direction our state is taking," said Ehrlich, who proposed larger spending increases during his four years as governor than O'Malley has. "Our small businesses are getting hit, and they are closing by the thousands. . . . The middle class is struggling under the weight of taxes -- particularly the largest tax increase in Maryland history, imposed on them in 2007."
In a statement issued by his campaign, O'Malley said, "I look forward to the upcoming campaign and a healthy debate about moving Maryland forward."
Public polls have shown Ehrlich no closer to O'Malley than in 2006, when he beat Ehrlich by 6.5 percentage points. Democrats have built upon their advantage in voter registration since then.
Ehrlich, who has telegraphed a run for weeks with travels around the state, is among the last serious candidates in the country to declare his intentions for a statewide race on the ballot this fall. His advisers believe his near-universal name recognition and proven fundraising ability will enable him to mount a serious challenge in the seven months until Election Day.
Ehrlich will start the race far behind O'Malley in fundraising. In January, the governor reported $5.7 million in the bank, while Ehrlich reported $151,529 in a campaign account that he has kept open since 2006.Preparing for a showdown
Maryland Democrats have been gearing up for an O'Malley-Ehrlich contest for months. The state party has released several Web ads that portray the former governor as a big spender who is friendly with special interests.
O'Malley campaign manager Tom Russell said he is glad that Ehrlich is "finally announcing" and said Ehrlich's record "should provide a good contrast with the tough leadership and real progress achieved by the O'Malley/[Lt. Gov. Anthony G.] Brown administration."
The animosity between Ehrlich and O'Malley was evident during a pair of debates taped the same day in 2006, in which they traded scathing assessments of each other's records.
Ehrlich accused O'Malley of neglecting Baltimore's low-performing schools, of wrongfully arresting thousands of its residents and of practicing a "leadership style of whining and blaming others for your failures."
O'Malley argued that there were "two Bob Ehrlichs," one who, during an election year, touts tax cuts, investments in education and a commitment to the environment, and another whose record of governing is starkly different.
"We can do better, but we need a governor who is on the side of working families," O'Malley said in the first debate.
With 37 governor's races around the country this fall, Maryland's contest has yet to become a priority for Republicans nationally.
A PowerPoint presentation given to party donors last month listed 16 "top gubernatorial targets." Traditionally Democratic states -- including Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine -- made the list. Maryland did not.
But Doug Heye, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said that could change. "The second Bob Ehrlich announces he's running, it becomes a top race," Heye said.
O'Malley, meanwhile, is well positioned if he needs help, his aides suggest. He served as finance chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in the 2008 election cycle, and is now vice chairman of the organization, which works to elect Democratic governors.
Since his 2006 loss, Ehrlich has worked to maintain visibility with a weekly radio talk show on Baltimore's WBAL (1090 AM). He also opened and has led a Baltimore office for the North Carolina-based law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, where several former administration aides hold jobs.
Ehrlich's tenure in Annapolis was marked by frequent clashes with the Democratic-dominated General Assembly. His efforts to legalize slot-machine gambling were repeatedly thwarted, and several high-profile initiatives were enacted after the legislature overrode his vetoes.
Ehrlich counts among his accomplishments the acceleration of plans for the Intercounty Connector and a major initiative to upgrade the state's wastewater-treatment plants.
Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.