Brian Murphy a wild card in battle vs. Robert Ehrlich in Md.

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sarah Palin put long-shot Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Brian Murphy on the map with her unexpected endorsement last month. But it will be people like Rey Aldridge who determine his destination in Tuesday's Republican primary.

Aldridge, the manager of a family-owned diner in Anne Arundel County, where business has waned during the recession, waited patiently on a recent morning for the conservative 33-year business investor to drop by.

"I think I'm going to vote for him," said Aldridge, who had never laid eyes on Murphy before but allowed his campaign to put an oversize sign on her well-traveled intersection a few weeks ago. "We need a breath of fresh air, and he's saying all the right things."

Virtually no one outside Murphy's loyal band of aides gives him any chance of upsetting former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) on Tuesday. But guessing the share of voters who will join Aldridge in supporting a political novice has become somewhat of a parlor game among Maryland political insiders.

One of the few public polls that have tested Murphy's strength put him at 13 percent late last month. Since then, some pundits have suggested he could draw as much of a third of the primary vote -- enough to embarrass Ehrlich as he heads into the November general election against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

Maryland's GOP primaries are open only to registered Republicans and tend to be dominated by the conservative wing of the party. Murphy has run to Ehrlich's right on taxes, spending, abortion rights, gun rights, immigration and just about every other issue.

"Everywhere I go, people tell me, 'You can't win, but I'm voting for you,' " Murphy said after autographing the sign at Aldridge's diner, a stop on his ongoing "Refuse to Settle" tour. "I love where we are, to be honest."

Ehrlich, who proved moderate enough to win a general election in heavily Democratic Maryland in 2002, has been largely dismissive of Murphy's candidacy. Last week he told reporters that Tuesday would be just another work day for him as he continues to target O'Malley in November.

"I haven't given it one thought," he said when asked how much of the primary vote he expected Murphy to draw.

Whatever the outcome, it doesn't appear Palin will be much of a factor in the closing days. The former Alaska governor has not announced plans to come to Maryland to campaign with Murphy, as she has done with many of the other candidates she has endorsed around the country.

And Palin's endorsement appears to have had a modest impact, at best, on Murphy's fundraising. Murphy, a Montgomery County resident, reported raising only about $35,000 -- including $14,000 from himself -- during an 18-day period that started about a week after the Palin endorsement and ended Aug. 29.

By contrast, Ehrlich reported raising more than $725,000 during the 18-day period -- more than 20 times what Murphy did. Ehrlich had about $2.5 million in the bank at the end of the period, compared with the $30,776 that Murphy did.

Still, Murphy credits Palin with attracting a great deal of attention to his bid last month, including appearances on the CBS Evening News and in USA Today. Her endorsement was among the first things mentioned by Aldridge, the diner owner when asked what she likes about Murphy.

"Everyone just keeps saying it's about Ehrlich and O'Malley, but Sarah Palin likes him, and I love Sarah Palin," Aldridge said. "She calls it like it is, and a lot of people don't want to hear it."

Murphy, a former commodities trader for Constellation Energy who now owns a small bakery on Smith Island, has also picked up endorsements from other national conservative groups and figures.

On Friday, he claimed the support of Concerned Women for America, a group that says it works to "bring biblical principles into all levels of public policy." Gary Bauer, who gained prominence among cultural conservatives in the 1990s, also has written an endorsement letter for Murphy, citing his conservative views on both economic and social issues.

Gazette columnist Blair Lee recently wrote that Murphy could get a third of the GOP primary vote because he offers "red meat" to an electorate where "pro-life, 2nd Amendment, anti-illegals voters have amplified strength."

Richard J. Cross, a former Ehrlich staffer, has also written in his blog that Murphy could "defy expectations" on Tuesday. Cross predicts 22 percent for Murphy, saying anything above 25 percent would push Ehrlich in the "embarrassment zone."

In the 2002 Democratic primary, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was arguably weakened when Bob Fustero, a retired grocery clerk who did little campaigning, won 20 percent of the vote. Townsend went on to lose to Ehrlich in November.

Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) declined to make a prediction about Murphy's performance but suggested there will be no similar drag on Ehrlich in the general election.

"There will be some people who want a total change on Tuesday, but I don't think it'll be that many," Kittleman said. "The only number that matters is that Ehrlich prevails, and he will."

O'Malley faces only token opposition on Tuesday. Earlier this year, it appeared he would face a primary challenge from George W. Owings III, a former Democratic state delegate from Southern Maryland who served in Ehrlich's administration as veterans secretary.

Owings never officially filed for office, citing recovery from surgery. He has since showed up at a couple of Ehrlich campaign events.

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