Ehrlich is back, looking for a new mood among Md. voters

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010

He's showing more gray, but not much else about Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. seems to have changed.

Since he returned to the campaign trail 2 1/2 weeks ago, Maryland's former Republican governor has surrounded himself with many of the aides and other assorted characters who were with him during his four years in Annapolis.

The unscripted speeches are back, bouncing freely from pro-business talking points to sports references to perhaps too-candid comments about his strong-willed wife and two sons. Drew is 10 and Josh 6, Ehrlich told a crowd in Arbutus. "I'm not telling you how old Kendel is because I've got to go home tonight."

Even the language Ehrlich is using to show his disdain for the Democrats who dominate Annapolis is familiar. "The monopoly is arrogant. The monopoly is sloppy," he said at a stop in Hagerstown, employing lines he has used often over the years.

All of which raises a key question: If so much is the same, why is Ehrlich expecting a different outcome in this year's governor's race than from his 2006 loss to then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D)?

"Two things have changed," Ehrlich said in an interview. "The environment's better, and Martin O'Malley's had four years as governor." When it comes to O'Malley, Ehrlich said, Marylanders are experiencing "buyer's remorse."

Analysts agree that Ehrlich is running in a far more favorable national political climate than he did four years ago, as evidenced by Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts in the past year. But they also question whether that will be enough to make up the difference in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1.

"The national environment will encourage some people, mostly Republicans, to vote, and discourage others, mostly Democrats, from voting, so it can affect turnout," said Paul S. Herrnson, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "But in a governor's race in Maryland, where the candidates are well known, decisions will be based largely on the quality of the candidates, the issues they run on and the environment in the state. . . . The cards are still tilted heavily in favor of the Democrat."

That leaves Ehrlich as a key variable -- his abilities to do a better job in selling himself and in making a case against O'Malley. In the early going, some have questioned whether he's doing his part.

After Ehrlich waited until this month to announce -- becoming one of the last major candidates in the country to declare his intentions -- "you would have thought he would have come out with both guns blazing," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., an independent Bethesda-based research and consulting firm.

Ehrlich made an initial splash with his announcement, declaring that he was writing "history, part two," proposing a cut in the state sales tax that rose under O'Malley and reminding supporters of the combination of forcefully stated policy positions and screwball charm they found endearing during his years in Annapolis.

A campaign kickoff event in Rockville and a rally in Arbutus were followed by swings through Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore that drew modest but enthusiastic crowds.

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