By John Wagner
Monday, August 9, 2010; B01
Just a few months ago, Brian Murphy's friends would roam the halls of the Maryland State House, practically begging reporters there to go outside for news conferences by the unknown Republican candidate for governor.
Last week, a parade of those scribes lined up to see him.
What changed things was a single unexpected moment: Sarah Palin's endorsement Wednesday of the like-minded 33-year-old business investor from Montgomery County, who is making his first bid for public office against former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the GOP primary.
"What this campaign has always needed is a megaphone," Murphy said, "and Sarah's endorsement gave that to us."
In the 72 hours after Palin's announcement, Murphy braced for a surge in campaign contributions, particularly from out-of-state Palin supporters. The endorsement became the talk of the political blogosphere. Murphy appeared on almost every Maryland TV and radio station.
And he was summoned to New York for an appearance Friday night on a Fox Business channel show on which a panel of guests nodded as Murphy argued that business leaders are best suited to run the state.
Yet as the week ended, the debate in Maryland politics seemed to center not on whether Murphy could win but on how long his newfound fame might last -- and what Palin was thinking.
Since she has come to be revered by the political right, the former Alaska governor has offered endorsements in more than two dozen races across the country, bolstering the fortunes of some candidates but siding with losers in other cases.
It was unclear whether Palin will travel to Maryland to campaign with Murphy before next month's primary. As of last week, the two had never talked directly.
"This got the guy from complete obscurity to seeing his name in the paper, but he's still not a viable candidate," said Larry Hogan, an Annapolis real estate broker who ended an exploratory bid for Maryland governor this year once it became clear that Ehrlich was going to try to win the job back from Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). "My opinion last week was that Brian Murphy's campaign was insignificant, and it's still my opinion this week."
For a loyal band of Murphy supporters, Palin's endorsement provided validation of their choice of a conservative candidate so obscure that most independent pollsters have not tested his support against Ehrlich's.
"Several colleagues of mine and people I know had wondered if we were just tilting at windmills here," said George M. Kappaz, a global businessman and former Ehrlich backer who opened his Potomac home for a Murphy fundraiser last week. "But I think Brian is going to surprise a lot of people. My phone has been ringing off the hook from friends all over the country."To the right of Ehrlich
Murphy mentioned the Palin endorsement three times during remarks at the fundraiser, speaking to a crowd of about 150 that included young and middle-age professionals.
In his 15-minute talk, Murphy said that he had moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore in second grade and that his family went bankrupt while he was in middle school after a failed business venture by his father.
He attended the University of Maryland, became a portfolio manager for Constellation Energy in Baltimore, attended the Wharton School and founded an investment firm. The firm's first project was a small bakery on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
As governor, Murphy said, he would not raise taxes and would root out "waste, fraud and abuse" in state government -- but he offered few other specifics. He said he would represent a clean break from O'Malley and Ehrlich, whom Murphy criticized for increasing the size of government and allowing certain taxes and fees to rise.
"I call it the Ehrlich-O'Malley administration," Murphy said. "You certainly shouldn't rehire them if you can't tell who's who."
Murphy has positioned himself to the right of Ehrlich on several issues, including gun rights and abortion, but he largely glossed over them at the fundraiser, saying that the election should turn on who can best manage an out-of-control state budget.
Murphy drew laughs by describing himself as "a skinny Chris Christie," a reference to the Republican governor in New Jersey who has taken a no-holds-barred approach to cutting that state's budget.
Murphy was also short on specifics during his appearance Friday on Fox Business's "America's Nightly Scoreboard" -- but he did demonstrate an ability to turn a phrase.
"When you elect lawyers to run your government . . . you deserve what you get," Murphy said. "If you hire an electrician to fix your sink, who's the dummy when it leaks?"'Not terribly relevant'
No independent analyst has suggested that Murphy has a chance of beating Ehrlich, who told reporters last week that he thought Palin's endorsement was "not terribly relevant to anything." The tea party movement, which Palin has aligned herself with, has not packed the same punch in Maryland as it has in some states.
Privately, Ehrlich aides have said that getting shunned by Palin could help him in the general election. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1 in Maryland, and some of the Democrats whom Ehrlich needs to draw to his side are hardly fans of Sen. John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential race.
As a more moderate Republican, Ehrlich has alienated some conservatives during his 20 years in public office, which have included stints in Congress and as a state delegate.
Carmen M. Amedori, a former state delegate who agreed in April to serve as Murphy's running mate only to back out two weeks later, said she had recently come to think that Murphy could win about 20 percent of the GOP primary vote. Palin's endorsement might increase that to about 25 percent, Amedori suggested, as more people take a look at Murphy.
Those who cast ballots for Murphy will be people "disenchanted with Governor Ehrlich because he did not go to bat on Second Amendment issues the way he said he would, he's not totally pro-life, and he has raised some taxes and fees," said Amedori, who represented Carroll County in the General Assembly.
Amedori, whom Ehrlich appointed to the state parole commission in 2004, dropped off Murphy's ticket after she said she had concluded that there was no way he could win, given the media's fixation on an O'Malley-Ehrlich rematch.Head-scratching on blogs
Although Murphy welcomed the recent attention, not all of it has been positive.
During an appearance Friday on WTOP (103.5 FM) radio, host Mark Plotkin said Palin's endorsement of Murphy reminded him of the way McCain had picked Palin for his presidential ticket: with very little vetting.
"How could she do due diligence without speaking to you?" Plotkin asked.
Murphy said that Palin's staff had spent months scrutinizing his candidacy and that "she understands how important this race is nationally."
On the blogosphere, there has been as much conversation about Palin's thinking as Murphy's candidacy.
"Even by Palin's standards, her endorsement . . . of a little-known Maryland businessman over former governor Bob Ehrlich in the state's gubernatorial primary qualified as a shocker," Ray Gustini wrote on theatlanticwire.com. "Across the Web, bewildered pundits struggled to make sense of the maneuver."