Ehrlich livens up Md. race but doesn't knock out O'Malley

Former Md. Gov. Robert Ehrlich squared-off against current Governor Martin O'Malley in a spirited debate Thursday at The Washington Post.
By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 11:54 PM

It's so much more fun being the candidate with nothing to lose. You get to accuse a sitting governor of not understanding the basics of how government works. You get to mock him for relying on cliches. You get to raise eyebrows with provocative comments about illegal immigrants.

That was the happy position in which Maryland's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob Ehrlich, found himself during Thursday's debate with the incumbent, Democrat Martin O'Malley.

Behind in the polls, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Ehrlich was free to unleash the informal, pushy persona that he's honed as co-host of a conservative radio talk show in Baltimore in the four years since O'Malley ousted him from the governor's mansion after one term.

By contrast, O'Malley was trying so hard to be cautious and protect his lead that he took a pass and declined to answer when asked a whimsical question about what his favorite song was. He must have been worried that any tune he picked would risk offending some demographic sliver of the electorate.

But while Ehrlich scored some points and helped enliven the race as it enters its final rounds before Election Day, Nov. 2, I didn't think he knocked O'Malley off balance or fundamentally altered the race.

Both men's positions are already well known to the electorate - and have been for more than four years - and there wasn't much that Ehrlich could do to change people's minds.

O'Malley was probably surprised when Ehrlich came on so energetically in the hour-long debate sponsored by Washington Post Live. Three days earlier, at their first debate, in Baltimore, Ehrlich was flat and seemed unprepared.

If Ehrlich had turned in another subpar performance, I was ready to write him off as not really interested in another term. He's hinted repeatedly that he was running mainly because so many Republicans, particularly his wife, Kendel, had urged him to do so. He talked openly about the cost to his personal life of living in the public eye.

But Ehrlich recaptured his ideological passion Thursday. He assailed O'Malley and Maryland's dominant Democratic establishment, accusing them of hammering small business with excessive regulations, waging class warfare by raising taxes on the rich and piling up enormous debts that threatened the state's future prosperity.

He also delighted in needling O'Malley, apparently trying to disrupt the latter's eerily disciplined attachment to talking points stressing innovation, investment, education, and similar uplifting and visionary objectives.

"I think we have focused on the problem: The governor doesn't understand the fundamentals of state government," Ehrlich said at one point.

He was rejecting O'Malley's assertion that Ehrlich had violated a 2002 pledge not to raise taxes. The Democrat said the Republican had raised property taxes and fees once in office.

Ehrlich responded that the governor doesn't set the property tax rate and "fees are not taxes."

O'Malley said, "The former governor's credibility on this issue is nonexistent."

Ehrlich also twitted O'Malley for using euphemisms: preferring to talk about "new Americans" rather than illegal immigrants.

"By the way, if somebody breaks into my house, is that a new member of my family that night?" Ehrlich asked rhetorically.

Ehrlich's strategy was to shake up the race by showing voters that he was the candidate willing to be candid, especially about tough budget choices ahead. In particular, he talked frankly about the need for painful steps to fix the enormous deficit facing the state employee pension system.

"Ultimately, the narrative of this campaign is going to be serious times, serious people, serious debate, serious issues, new administration in Annapolis," Ehrlich told reporters afterward.

But there was a gaping weakness in that part of Ehrlich's argument, and O'Malley zeroed in on it. Despite pressure to clarify, Ehrlich didn't lay out specifics about how he'd cover the cost of his signature proposal to lower the state's sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent.

"I believe the answer to the last question, asked repeatedly, was: He has no idea how he'd make up the 700-800 million shortfall," O'Malley said.

Perhaps the contrast between the candidates' personalities was most evident in their responses to another offbeat question, about how to improve the Baltimore Orioles.

Ehrlich said the team should add a power-hitting first baseman and a new starting pitcher. O'Malley's straight-arrow response: "Practice, practice, practice."

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

© 2010 The Washington Post Company