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

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010; B01

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.

Since then, Ehrlich has maintained a lighter public schedule and been less visible than O'Malley. Ehrlich and his aides say he is out and about more than it appears, at fundraisers and other events closed to the media, and that he is balancing his campaign schedule with his kids' sporting events and unfinished work at his law firm. He made several appearances over the weekend, including at a parade in Easton and two charity events in Baltimore.

In public appearances, Ehrlich has acknowledged he is running in a "tough state" and "tough election" and has been more candid than most candidates about the possibility of losing. At a roundtable discussion with small-business owners in Annapolis, Ehrlich said he wanted some of them to serve on his transition team if he wins. But even if things don't go his way, Ehrlich said, the business owners need to be far more aggressive about lobbying state leaders in Annapolis.

There have been murmurs in Maryland political circles about whether Ehrlich -- whom Democrats chided for spending too much time on the golf course as governor -- has the fire in the belly needed to win. It's a notion Ehrlich dismisses.

In coming weeks and months, Ehrlich said, his campaign will roll out policy proposals on issues including small business, education and the environment. "It will be a combination of things you expect from me and others you wouldn't," he said.

Ehrlich is hoping to find a more receptive audience in the changed political environment.

In 2006, O'Malley and his allies ran a barrage of radio and television ads linking Ehrlich to an unpopular President George W. Bush -- a strategy that both sides agree paid off.

"I talked about Iraq more than tax policy last time, which was pretty strange for a governor's race," Ehrlich said last week after a luncheon in Baltimore attended by about 50 people. "This time, I don't have to do that. . . . The war and the president are not there."

Although Ehrlich might not be running into a national headwind this year, it remains to be seen whether he will be lifted by a political tailwind favoring Republicans.

Haller said Maryland tends to be somewhat insulated from national sentiment running against the government, in part because it is home to so many federal employees.

"There's not a very visible, large-scale movement that has decided to make Maryland a battleground, and some of those people are not going to want to make Ehrlich their savior," Haller said, alluding to Ehrlich's 20 years in public office and spending increases during the latter part of his term as governor.

To that point, Ehrlich has made a plan to roll back a 2007 increase in the state sales tax the centerpiece of his campaign. The increase -- from 5 to 6 percent -- was the largest of tax increases supported by O'Malley during a special session that year aimed at closing anticipated budget shortfalls.

Ehrlich has played up his plan at rallies and in meetings with small-businesses owners, whom he suggests will again have a friend in the State House if he is elected. And Ehrlich has suggested that he is the only thing standing in the way of another round of tax increases after the election.

Many of Ehrlich's attacks have been aimed at Annapolis rather than O'Malley.

"Maryland believes Annapolis is broke," Ehrlich told a crowd on a street corner in downtown Hagerstown. "Our central mission is to fix Annapolis."

Among those who liked what they heard was Denny Stouffer, a retired state correctional officer, who said he was glad to see Ehrlich back in the game and thinks Ehrlich's chances of winning "are very good, if people look at the issues."

Asked whether he thinks Ehrlich has changed since his 2006 loss, Stouffer paused for a moment. "I don't think he has," he said. "He's just a few years older, that's all."

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