O'Malley campaign ads portray Ehrlich as lobbyist for big oil

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gov. Martin O'Malley is inundating Marylanders this weekend with two negative radio ads seeking to portray former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as perhaps the only thing worse this year than an incumbent politician: a lobbyist working for big oil.

One ad, dubbed "Drill, Baby, Drill," is a comic-style mashup of Ehrlich using those very words more than a year ago on his talk-radio show. The other jabs Ehrlich for an on-air remark that he's made "a lot of money" since leaving office four years ago working for a law firm with an extensive lobbying arm.

"Stop pretending . . . You said it yourself, Bob, you made a lot of money -- 'a lot of money' -- from a lobbying firm that represents special interests like big oil, big tobacco and even banks looking for billions in bailouts," a narrator says.

The ads have jarred to life what had been a sleepy campaign for governor and indicate that O'Malley (D) and Ehrlich (R) intend to resume the same sort of in-the-mud and in-your-face tactics that both employed when they faced off four years ago. In addition to the two ads already on the air -- both of which contain questionable claims -- the O'Malley campaign said more are in the works.

O'Malley's ads follow in the same vein as nearly a dozen negative and sometimes-dubious YouTube videos, news releases and blog posts by the state Democratic Party over the past two months that assert Ehrlich has done such things as promote the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States.

The party cites an exchange Ehrlich had with a caller to his radio show in which the Republican appears to agree that the question of when Obama would release his birth certificate is a relevant one. But Ehrlich campaign spokesman Andy Barth said that the candidate was not calling for Obama to release his birth certificate and that "he doesn't believe in that stuff."

"My sense is that this is just the beginning," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "This race is going to be a dogfight, tooth and nail, and they are going to use any advantage they think they can find. It's been repeated many times that these candidates don't seem to care for one another very much."

The early and aggressive effort underscores the tremendous cash advantage O'Malley holds. Neither candidate has had to release fundraising totals since before the campaign began in earnest in April, but O'Malley reported $5.7 million in the bank in January, while Ehrlich reported $151,529 in a campaign account that he has kept open since 2006. Ehrlich has held several fundraisers, including one this month with Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), but it's widely thought that he remains millions short of O'Malley, who has continued his aggressive fundraising.

The ads are the first indication of how O'Malley intends to use those millions to define Ehrlich and the race. By asserting that Ehrlich has worked as a lobbyist -- even though he has never registered as one -- O'Malley appears to be seeking to cut off any notion Ehrlich may have had of running as an outsider, an approach that has worked for Republicans elsewhere. Rather, he is trying to cast Ehrlich as a consummate insider who parlayed his career in Congress and as governor into a high-paid position as a corporate influence peddler. With no counteroffensive from Ehrlich, the ads could define for average voters a critical blank spot in his recent biography.

But the strategy also carries risks for O'Malley, observers say, especially if voters think that he is being too negative or too loose with the facts.

Ehrlich has, so far, calculated that he either doesn't need to spend money to counter the attacks or that he can't afford to. Although he's called the drill ad contemptible and so blatantly "dishonest that it debases the office we both seek," he's only posted a YouTube video denouncing it and texted supporters asking them to call O'Malley's office to complain. With reporters, he's laughed it off, calling the ads "silly" or "absurd."

"It has no relation to any fact," Ehrlich said last week. "I've never been a lobbyist, don't represent oil companies. The congressional votes were bipartisan, some unanimous . . . They took the snippets out of different interviews over time."

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