Robert Ehrlich mines Maryland's aggravations for votes in governor's race

Gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich has been focusing on small pockets of Maryland voters, what one analyst calls "micro-targeting."
Gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich has been focusing on small pockets of Maryland voters, what one analyst calls "micro-targeting." (Jacquelyn Martin/associated Press)

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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010

A MARC commuter train breaks down, stranding hundreds of passengers in the heat for more than two hours without water. Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. later invites the media to look on as he commiserates with an exasperated rider, pledges more attention to maintenance and launches "Commuters for Ehrlich" on Facebook.

State employees are forced to take another unpaid day off as part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's approach to balancing the budget. Ehrlich (R) posts a video on his Web site promising never to use furloughs if he returns to office.

Residents of an Eastern Shore community seethe after another malfunction on a swing bridge results in hours of backed-up traffic. Who shows up a few days later? None other than Ehrlich, who's greeted as a hero when he pledges to fix the bridge once and for all when he's governor again.

While O'Malley (D) has begun his campaign for reelection with a round of radio and television ads, Ehrlich has adopted a less-noticeable strategy: seizing on a number of pockets of discontent to try to capitalize, a handful of voters at a time, on dissatisfaction with his successor.

Although O'Malley has enjoyed generally positive job-approval ratings, his tenure has included numerous rounds of budget cuts and plenty of policy calls that have angered particular groups. That has created ample targets for Ehrlich, who has managed to put O'Malley on the defensive in several cases, including over what has become known as the "hell train" that stalled in June on the Penn Line.

In recent weeks, the former governor has also reached out to watermen unhappy with new regulations and pledged to those who work in Maryland's film industry that he will restore a tax break pared under O'Malley.

In private, some O'Malley aides have mocked Ehrlich's strategy, forwarding to one another a mock "news advisory" in recent days that pretends to alert the media to the former governor's next event. A copy of the e-mail obtained by The Washington Post advertises the event this way: "Bob Ehrlich to visit something or other in Maryland that is not exactly functioning entirely well, point to it on camera and refer to Gov. Martin O'Malley as a 'doodyhead.' "

In public, O'Malley's aides have suggested that Ehrlich's efforts are politically opportunistic and might backfire, particularly in cases where his rhetoric is at odds with his record.

"It's certainly a tactic, but it's not a vision to get our state through this recession . . . and keep Maryland moving forward," said O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "I think people are smart and see through it."

Abbruzzese said, for example, that although Ehrlich was quick to criticize the well-publicized MARC train breakdown, funding and ridership have increased significantly during O'Malley's tenure.

Voter by voter

But in a competitive election, small gains among enough groups of voters can add up, analysts say. "If you think this is a close race, you're trying to pick up any little constituency you can," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland who calls what Ehrlich is doing "micro-targeting."

Recently, the former governor was swarmed by several dozen supporters and local officials as he stood on a bank of the Choptank River, just outside Easton, on a blazing hot day. Motorists whizzed over the 78-year-old Dover Bridge behind him, many of them honoring signs held by local residents that asked them to honk if they support a replacement.


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